April 25, 2007

PCLinuxOS launching hardware certification program

Author: Nathan Sanders

The PCLinuxOS Hardware Database (HWDB) collects user-submitted reports on the compatibility of various hardware with the PCLinuxOS distribution. Now its founder has announced a plan to begin a hardware certification program for personal computer manufacturers.

The certification team plans to test computer models with the latest version of the distribution and, if it proves compatible, allow the manufacturer to add a "Certified -- Works with PCLinusOS" label to the computer's packaging. Initially, the team plans to perform certification testing without vendor participation and report results unsolicited to manufacturers.

Requirements for being PCLOS-certified are not yet fleshed out, but the general yardstick has been defined as "out of the box" compatibility with prebuilt systems. According to HWDB founder Jeremiah Summers, "the assumption [is] that the performance will be as the manufacturer intended when the device was designed, or that the manufacturer has provided drivers that come with an installer that is easy to use while still not degrading any performance for the hardware." Summers will work with volunteers from the PCLOS community on the certification program.

Preliminary plans are to designate two levels of certification. Silver certified hardware manufacturers will be those whose hardware works with PCLOS, but which have demonstrated no recognizable effort to maintain compatibility, and may not even realize that their hardware is compatible. To be certified as Gold, a manufacturer will have to demonstrate active support of the Linux community by distributing necessary device drivers and striving to maintain compatibility.

Summers believes that Silver certified manufacturers are valuable resources for the expansion of desktop Linux awareness. After testing their products, he plans to contact these manufacturers to notify them of their certification. He hopes that the element of surprise will help them to realize the potential viability of the Linux market. In his words, "They seem to not care. We need to show we care and we're an asset. This is a way of showing, whether you like it or not, your hardware works. You can continue to ignore us or you can take advantage of your already working hardware and next time purposely say, 'We used this chip set because we know it's compatible for our Linux users.'"

The certification package that Summers will distribute to manufacturers has also not been finalized, but loose designs have been constructed. For Gold manufacturers, the package will essentially amount to a thank you letter with a certificate, and the certification logo, which they may display on their product packaging. Silver manufacturers will receive the logo materials along with a letter of encouragement rather than appreciation.

Both Silver and Gold packages may also include a remastered PCLOS live CD that manufacturers can boot on their hardware. The live CD desktop will display information about PCLOS and the manufacturer's hardware. Summers says, "In either instance [Silver of Gold] we are trying to establish a decent relationship with the vendors in hopes that we can get some type of information from them that can help the community."

Ideally, Summers would like to receive advance knowledge from PC manufacturers who are switching the chipsets in their products, and perhaps even hardware to test. He says that it is not uncommon for the chipsets in a product to differ within individual models without warning, meaning that some users buying the model may experience incompatibility with Linux while others may not.

Summers is spearheading the certification program with goals similar to those he espouses for the HWDB. The HWDB, initially known as The Love of Linux, was born in response to the hardware FAQs being offered by the Mandriva and Fedora projects at the time, which Summers describes as being populated by employee rather than user submissions. Summers hoped to build a more comprehensive and reliable hardware compatibility database by trusting user experiences.

While the HWDB is not yet a mature compendium of components, prebuilt systems, and peripherals, it is steadily becoming a useful and reliable resource for the PCLOS community. Moreover, Summers uses the information submitted by users to recommend changes to the PCLOS development team that could improve hardware compatibility for the distro. Because he publishes the database on the Web, Summers hopes other distributions will also benefit from his work.

Summers cites Greg Kroah-Hartman's Free Linux Driver Development announcement, in which the Linux kernel team offered to assume device driver development responsibilities for hardware manufacturers free of cost, as inspiration for the PCLOS certification program. In light of Kroah-Hartman's program, and in addition to the vast list of hardware already supported by the Linux kernel, it is surprising that more hardware manufacturers do not advertise Linux compatibility. Of the manufacturers whose users successfully running Linux on prebuilt boxes worldwide, the vast majority do not have anything resembling a "Linux Certified" sticker on their cases. Summers says, "Maybe all some of them need is to be told [that their hardware is supported] and then they would start adding 'works with Linux' on the box."

The PCLOS program joins hardware certification schemes offered by other distributions. Novell's YES CERTIFIED program offers SUSE Linux and NetWare certification mechanisms to its PartnerNet or Ready Program members. Membership requirements for Novell's partner programs vary between $1,500 annual fees for Silver members to hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of "direct or influenced revenue" for invited Platinum members. For an annual subscription fee of $5,000, Red Hat offers a certification process that requires manufacturers to test and report compatibility independently. For an additional fee of $1,500 per product, Red Hat will perform the testing.

Mandriva publishes a hardware database that uses employee testing to rate compatibility. For a fee that ranges from $500 for components and peripherals to $1,500 for server systems, Mandriva will officially certify a product and give it its highest recommendation to users. Linspire's hardware certification program seems to rely on user submissions, although members of its free "builders" partner program are encouraged to submit compatibility information themselves. Ubuntu also offers hardware certification for a fee.

The PCLOS hardware certification program is clearly more community-oriented than these alternatives, and is more likely to attract smaller OEMs and niche manufacturers, such as Seascape and eLinuxstop, which whom PCLOS already maintains partnerships.

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