How Dell’s Project Sputnik came to life

I met and talked to Barton George, the project’s initiator and leader, to understand the backstory.

Barton George of Project Sputnik from Dell
Swapnil Bhartiya

Today when a Linux user goes shopping, they have many options and Dell is at the top. Dell has earned a good reputation within the Linux community for Project Sputnik that works on high-end Linux powered machines.

In late 2011, George was part of a team at Dell that was trying to figure out how Dell could better serve web companies. While Dell was already a major player supplying really big customers with custom servers, this group was looking to expand further to web companies of all sizes — from small garage start-ups to the Amazons, the Googles.

“We had brought in an analyst to give us some ideas, and one of the comments he made was that there was no major OEM building a fully-supported Linux laptop that came complete with drivers and provided a great out of the box experience,” said George. The advisor said if Dell offered a Linux laptop that "just worked" it would definitely generate interest from the developer community.

George looked at the idea and while he saw it as a great opportunity, he thought that it would never fly at Dell given the massive scale and volume that Dell’s client systems group operated at. “A strategic project like this targeted at a constituency that we hadn't focused on in the past would be tough,” said George. He put the idea on the shelf, filing it under the heading "a great but unrealistic idea."

Three months later, George learned about an internal innovation fund at Dell and saw a possibility to bring the idea of a developer laptop to life. He pitched the idea of "Project Sputnik" to the committee saying he wanted to put together a high-end Linux-based developer laptop. The idea he explained would be to take an open source approach and solicit input directly from the community to see what they wanted in a developer laptop. He planned to execute his plan in the open via blogs, forums and other social media.

While Dell had been offering Ubuntu since the late '90s, it had been on lower-priced systems. With Sputnik, the idea was to address a large audience who was looking for a premium system. The idea that someone would be willing to lay out the money for Dell’s top of the line system with a free OS pre-installed was met with skepticism.

He explained the system would target IT professionals and was going to be a machine that was created for usage and not price point. George said that once you understand how communities work you can really thrive, “If you are working to serve developers, you earn the confidence of the community by being transparent and honest. If you do this and set expectations accordingly they will dive in and help you in actually improving things.”

A month after George’s initial presentation, on the ides of March 2012, he got the green light from the innovation community within Dell. He was given $100,000 and six months to see if the idea of a developer laptop would fly and become a real product.

Rather than leveraging Dell marketing to kick off the effort, George and the scrappy team of part-time members that had been pulled together chose to announce the project on George’s own blog. It deprived the project of the massive marketing arm of Dell, it was done deliberately to create a direct relationship with the community and allow greater responsiveness and agility.

In the initial blog post, George said they were soliciting input from developers to see what they wanted in a developer laptop. The effort was clearly positioned as an exploratory project that had a possibility of becoming an actual product. It was more or less a fully ‘open source’ project.

To collect feedback from developers, the community was asked to leave their ideas and requirement on Dell’s Idea Storm website. Ideas started pouring in and led George and the team to the conclusion that it made sense to take the project to the next level and they announced a beta program.

The team put together an online form to solicit candidates for the program. They asked questions like "what language do you develop on, what systems do you currently have and what industry do you work in." It was a comprehensive form and the team was surprised to find that people actually took the time to fill it out. Initially, they were expecting some 100 or 200 submissions, but they got more than 6,000 entries.

The interest the beta program generated was a clear sign that people were starving for such hardware and was the signal that convinced the innovation committee to give the Sputnik team the green light to take the effort from project to product. This was made public at OSCON in July of 2012, with the announcement that an official product would be available in the fall. “I think from PowerPoint to product out the door was about seven months,” George said.

Initially, George was thinking about a ‘beauty and the beast’ kind of line-up where they will have a wide range of systems ranging from svelte ultra-mobile laptops to really beefy systems.

“Luckily, cooler heads at Dell talked me into focusing on just one unit, one config and getting it right. We decided to start small and grow based on inputs and feedback from the developer community. If there was interest, we could then look to expand the line, if not then we will stick to one config,” said George.

Choosing an OS for the device was not hard. George had worked with Ubuntu folks earlier so he was aware of the fact that it was much easier to work with a project that was backed by a corporate entity and yet had a very strong community focus. At the same time, Ubuntu was a popular distribution and the company behind it, Canonical, was agile and easy to work with. Given all this, the team went with Ubuntu for Sputnik.

However, getting Linux to work on Dell systems was not a slam dunk. The small internal team had to dig in and work with third party device makers and Canonical to write the needed drivers that would then be shipped with the system.

“The biggest challenge was the Cypress Touchpad. Different device drivers took more time than others to write. The touchpad turned out to be the long pole in the tent,” said George. “It took an engineer or two from Dell, Cypress, and Canonical working closely together on it to deliver the code.”

Since Sputnik was sharing components with Windows machines, at the time they were using components which didn’t have open source drivers. George was able to influence other teams at Dell to get more open source friendly components. One such case was Wireless card that was proprietary, so with the next version, they got a card that had open source drivers. Now both the Linux and Windows versions are using the same wireless card that has an open source driver.

The Dell XPS 13 developer edition was a great looking device, which offered all drivers and full support for Ubuntu. The system turned out to be a hit with developers, and while it had been intended as a strategic play, it was also a financial success. A project that started with mere $40,000, has grown up to generate tens of millions of dollars for Dell. “We have seen 100% growth year over year for the last two years," said George.

“The interest has continued to grow over the last four odd years since the original system debuted and now we're in the sixth generation of the XPS 13,” said George. This interest encouraged Dell to expand the line-up from one config to the ‘beauty and beast’ lineup that George had originally envisioned.

The current line-up of developer systems includes the 13” XPS laptop, a range of high-end Precision mobile workstations, the 5520, 3520, 7520 and 7720, as well as a brand new full blown Precision 5720 All-in-One (AIO) desktop with a 27” screen.

The additions and refinements to the individual systems and line up were based on actual demand. Many developers wanted a bigger screen, more RAM, and more powerful processors, and the Precision line addressed their needs. Then many needed an AIO 27” desktop so a new product was added.

In fact, the addition of Precision line was done in pure open source fashion. Jared Dominguez who was moonlighting from his official engineering role in Dell’s server group took it upon himself to take a Precision home and get Ubuntu running on it. Dominguez then posted a how-to blog entry on Dell’s technical forum walking people through the process. Rather than satiating developers longing for a beefy developer targeted system, the post generated, even more, interest, so much so that a year later the Ubuntu-based Precision system became an official product joining the Sputnik line up.

All of this was achieved by one passionate person who assembled a very small team of like-minded people at Dell who were willing to contribute a bit of their time to the project.

“I always had this thought, ‘can we tie it to something larger?” said George. “But the fun part of my job is that while I do need to make sure a good part of my efforts fit into larger processes, there is quite a bit of freedom that I have to be creative. Dell is part of a big family now, post-merger with EMC, which brings them closer to VMware, Pivotal and Cloud Foundry. A lot of people at Cloud Foundry are using Macs but there is a subset that is now saying if you give me a powerful Linux machine I'd happily use that instead. So Sputnik is making friends at new places.”

What started off as a project to target individual developers can now be used across companies, said George.

In almost every case companies have policies for procuring hardware and developers have little choice in choosing their own system. That’s changing now as more and more companies are offering a choice between Macs and Linux. One good example is Docker where the company allows a developer to choose between Mac or a Linux powered machine and Sputnik is one of the options.

“When we first started this, the whole idea was, how do we become more relevant to web companies?” said George. “Today as we are looking at digital transformation, every company is a tech company - not just the Uber to AirBnBs but banks, retailers, manufacturers, the list goes on. Developers are at the center stage now. And these developers need machines that help them get the job done.”

Since most modern IT technologies are run on Linux and Open Source, the developers working on these projects live in the open source world. Just look at the way even Microsoft is forced to bake Linux into Windows 10 so such developers can use the tools they need. It creates a massive opportunity for projects like Sputnik to thrive and go bigger.

If Sputnik becomes an independent unit within Dell is uncertain. It's also unclear what will happen to the project if George gets bored or decides to do something else But it does show you the potential of “crazy” skunk work projects within large companies succeeding.

All you need is passion and a pure open source working model.

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