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INTERVIEW: Chander Kant of LinuxCertified

Today, Tux:Tops features an interesting interview with LinuxCertified.com founder, Chander Kant. We discuss all things concerned Linux's laptop support with the latest kernels.

1. How difficult (or easy) it is to support different Linux distros on laptops? What kind of progress has the 2.6.x kernel offers in this department?

Chander Kant: While over the years the support for Laptop hardware within all distributions has dramatically improved, it still remains a significant challenge to install, configure and support a wide variety of distributions on Laptops. The challenge areas come in support for wireless interface, fully accelerated graphics display with external VGA support, power management, integration of special shortcut keys (e.g. browser key) and general support for external peripherals. We are certainly able to leverage knowledge gained on one distribution while supporting various distributions. But there are always differences in the distributions, which requires us to do specific customizations per distribution.

The 2.6 kernel and associated advances in drivers, dramatically improved the support for critical laptop features. Software suspend is almost production ready at this point. Support for various hardware chipsets used in our hardware has vastly improved. New additions like dynamic control of cpu speed and "laptop mode" to conserve power consumed by disk, are great innovations helping out all users of Linux on laptops.

2. Which different needs your different laptop models serve? Do you have plans for an ultra portable laptop?

Chander Kant: LinuxCertified currently ships two classes of laptops: Laptops replacing powerful UNIX desktops, and laptops for the travelling Linux user. For example our LC2430 and LC2464 laptops are very popular replacements of systems such as Sun workstations. For the professional looking for a lighter weight Linux system we currently have couple of models: LC2210D and LC2100. Both of these are based on the new Dothan CPU from Intel. Currently, our lightest weight laptop is LC2100, which has a 12.1" screen and weighs approximately four pounds. In future we will be looking into a "sub-notebook" type laptop, which does not have a built-in optical drive. On the other end of the spectrum our LC2530 laptop comes with a high-resolution 17-inch screen. At more than 10 pounds, this is not the system for the road warrior, but is an excellent replacement for bulkier workstations.

3. Do you eye new distributions to support for your laptops? If yes, which are these distros?

Chander Kant: We are constantly looking at new distributions which have positive momentum and have key features for our demanding set of customers. We currently support Red Hat Enterprise (Workstation and Server), Fedora, Debian (Sarge), SuSE and Xandros on our laptops. We have recently started supporting Gentoo on some of our systems. We are also considering Ubuntu, a promising Debian based distribution.

4. In your opinion, what's the biggest problem with Linux today in terms of laptop support? How can this be overcomed?

Chander Kant: I would say peripheral support and power management are the biggest issues. Most peripheral vendors still consider Windows as their only target platform. Sometimes users find it frustrating that even tier-1 peripheral vendors change the chipsets in their peripherals without changing the model numbers. So, for example, the same Netgear 802.11g PCMCIA model will have full Linux support for a while, but will suddenly start shipping with a Linux incompatible chipset without any change in the model number! Since the manufacturers only certify and ship with Windows drivers, Windows customers don't feel the effect, but Linux users are adversely affected.

This is one of the key values we at LinuxCertified offer to our customers. We are constantly sifting through driver support for hardware related to Laptops, and ship fully compatible systems to our customers.

Over time as the footprint of Linux laptops increases in the market, the peripheral vendors will start paying attention to the Linux user base, and will hopefully provide ready-to-go driver support with their products.

5. You often have to patch existing or develop your own drivers in order to fully support notebooks. Are these changes go back to the main kernel tree? How's Linus feels about these patches?

Chander Kant: In general we try to be as close to the vanilla kernel tree as possible. In fact our kernels tend to be much simpler than some of the distribution kernels which sometimes have hundreds of patches applied. Most of our Kernel change efforts are focussed on working with teams creating specific functionality. For example, we have recently provided bug reports and other information to the team developing the software suspend patch as well as to the prism54 driver team. We also develop user-space utilities which utilize the new features being provided by the latest kernel to provide key functionality to laptop users. E.g. we provide mechanisms to our users to control the CPU speed, so they can make appropriate trade-off between performance and battery life.

We also help the larger open-source community by providing laptop hardware. For example we have provided a high-end Linux laptop to the team working on Debian installer project.

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