September 15, 2008

Michael Larabel talks about Phoronix

Author: Susan Linton

Phoronix.com is the definitive Linux hardware review site, featuring articles on motherboards, processors, memory, power supplies, cases, and other components. While other sites throw a hardware review into the mix occasionally, hardware reviews are the primary focus of Phoronix.com. Phoronix founder and executive editor Michael Larabel has it down to a science -- so much so that he was able to package and released his primary tools as an open source hardware testing suite. Now it is easy for anyone to obtain reliable and repeatable benchmarks for the components in their personal computer.

Larabel started Phoronix.com in June 2004 with the intention of catering to the Linux market. The idea sprang from his disappointment with the then-current state of hardware compatibility lists and databases. "For the desktop hardware that was supposed to 'just work,' it wasn't that elegant and often required additional steps to properly set up the driver or configure the options. Telling a user to use a revision control system to obtain the latest development code for a software component and then build it from source is not an appropriate option. Rather than learning to hack on one of the kernel subsystems, I felt the greatest mutual good I could provide to the Linux ecosystem would be providing a Web site that chronicles the experiences of using different hardware under Linux." Phoronix.com now includes distribution screenshots and briefs, hardware and software news, blogs, forums, and release information for the Phoronix Test Suite.

The test suite, which we covered earlier this year, is a "platform for facilitating easy to use, accurate, and reproducible Linux benchmarks. The goals with this are really to make it easier for Linux end users to run reliable (both qualitative and quantitative) benchmarks for their own personal use."

Why would someone release the very tool that gave their site an edge? Was Larabel worried about helping or creating new competition? "Yes, that had been a principal concern of mine for some time. However, under pressure from a particular hardware vendor and seeing a real need for standardized Linux benchmarking software within the industry, it was clear that the Phoronix Test Suite had to be formalized and developed openly.

"The original intentions with the Phoronix Test Suite were to design it to make it appealing to hardware vendors." There were hardware vendors that would have been open to Linux-based testing "within their quality assurance teams if there was a system that was free software and could be executed autonomously in a reproducible and standardized routine. The Phoronix Test Suite now provides that functionality plus more." Some vendors may have Linux test suites that "derived from their Windows testing software. For those vendors, the Phoronix Test Suite is more robust, rapidly developing, and often encompasses newer tests and a wider selection of tests than what their internal system provides, which makes it an ideal choice for a complementary suite."

Larabel has even more in mind. "There is a business model building around the Phoronix Test Suite. We will be looking to roll out a formal certification program for vendors. Other custom feature development and support is available to enterprise customers. In the next calendar year we will also be introducing a distributed test management system for managing the Phoronix Test Suite across a cluster of hardware as well as a few other enterprise-oriented solutions." We may even see the day when hardware will be PCQS (Phoronix Certification and Qualification Suite) certified.

The Phoronix Certification and Qualification Suite is "a reference specification for the Phoronix Test Suite designed to stress the various areas of desktop computers and workstations. Ultimately, the Phoronix Certification and Qualification Suite is intended to be an industry standard for validating hardware on the Linux operating system." Larabel says this means "we seek to define a standard for testing hardware against on Linux. A company may advertise Linux 2.6 kernel support, but that doesn't necessarily mean anything more than the device will be detected and should work. With the PCQS program ,we will add in a quantitative side of ensuring the device performs reliably and passes a selection of tests as set by our board of advisers, which we will be looking to form for different industries."

Larabel has other aspirations as well. "I am looking at unconventional ways to spread the adoption of the Phoronix Test Suite while enriching the free software ecosystem. Some of these efforts can already be seen with the major releases of the Phoronix Test Suite having formal press releases distributed to a number of industry targets -- Yahoo News!, Associated Press, etc. There are so many terrific innovations brewing at different levels of the free software stack, but sadly most developers seem content with just pushing out code. I think more free software developers must be proactive in their marketing, and I'll be glad to lend them a helping hand."

Most recently, Larabel launched a new Web site for the Phoronix Test Suite. The new design was the result of a community contest following the release of PTS 1.0. "There is much more content on this site when it comes to the Phoronix Test Suite features, road map, and usage. We are also rolling out a similarly designed interface for Phoronix Global, the Web-based component that allows users to upload and view results generated by the Phoronix Test Suite."

The launch of the new site corresponds with the release of version 1.2 of the suite. "There are more than 250 official changes since the most recent Phoronix Test Suite 1.0.5 release. We've added support for OpenSolaris and *BSD operating systems, a number of new suites and test profiles, improved software/hardware detection, a modular plugin framework, improved graph rendering, an option to analyze the results generated from a batch mode, and improved documentation. Among the companies that have contributed to the Phoronix Test Suite, Sun Microsystems has added two OpenGL-based Java test profiles and Unigine Corp has added another one of their game engine tests.

"The plugin feature makes it easy for any individual with basic PHP or shell scripting experience to take advantage of the Phoronix Test Suite without having to delve into the inner workings of the pts-core component. There are already modules for sending test results to an email address upon completion, counting any GPU rendering errors that occur during the testing process, monitoring system sensors while tests are running, overriding graphics image quality settings, and toggling the screensaver while the Phoronix Test Suite is active."

Larabel has been providing users with invaluable hardware compatibility results for years. Now he is offering his main testing tool to the public for anyone to employ and enjoy. He has future plans to expand his role in the community by assisting projects with public relations and marketing advice. He and Phoronix are worth keeping an eye on.

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