'The world is really changing': Why Linux on desktop is taking a sudden leap forward

With data science and AI workloads pushing the envelope in computer performance, Lenovo's Rob Herman tells TechRepublic why supporting the Linux user base is more important than ever.

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Lenovo's announcement that it's giving its hardware the Linux treatment serves as yet another indicator that the once-niche operating system is beginning to capture the attention of mainstream manufacturers, and signifies a huge leap forward for the Linux ecosystem.

Soon, Lenovo will offer full certification for the enterprise versions of the Red Hat and Ubuntu distributions  across its P Series ThinkPad and ThinkStation range.  This includes a preloaded OEM version of Ubuntu LTS, as well as Red Hat Enterprise Linux certification covering its entire portfolio of workstations. In a nutshell, users for whom Linux is their go-to platform will receive the same level of support from Lenovo as they would were they using Windows 10.

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It's big news for the Linux community: a "tectonic shift in the landscape," according to TechRepublic contributor Jack Wallen. It's also a big move for Lenovo, which is throwing its support behind Linux in response to major shifts in the computing landscape.

"Around the workstation and what I would call the performance computing world, the world is really changing," Rob Herman, general manager and executive director of the Workstation & Client AI Group, tells TechRepublic.

"We're starting to see a lot more use of data science and AI workloads on performance client products like workstations, [and] we're seeing software development need the ability for more customization and flexibility."

This is where Linux and the power of open source come into the picture, says Herman. This is particularly crucial in artificial intelligence, data science and content creation applications, areas Lenovo is eager to tap.

"Overall, we see content creators looking for an edge, looking for a new way, a new platform to develop on," says Herman.

"The number of Linux users is increasing year on year, so from a market standpoint, we see it's the right time to do it." 

Supporting the ecosystem

Many of the limitations of Linux in a workplace environment stem from compatibility and interoperability issues. With the majority of businesses running Windows PCs, and without specific technical know-how for running and maintaining Linux-based operating systems, users – and reluctant IT departments – are more likely to run into problems.

This is why Lenovo has spent the past five years building and refining its Linux expertise and diving "deeper and deeper" into the open-source ecosystem, which has involved fostering relationships with Red Hat and Ubuntu. The manufacturer is now in a position where it can offer full end-to-end support for the platform straight out of the box, covering everything from security patches and updates to firmware and bios optimizations.

This takes a significant investment in people, not to mention financial commitment, explains Herman. "To have that best-in-class hardware, software interoperability, to have that driver availability… you have to have a development team behind that, so we've made the investment there," he says.

"We've really tightened our partnerships with companies like Canonical and Red Hat to improve our overall response and our overall platform development."

On the subject of financials, Herman doesn't offer projections for Lenovo-branded Linux machines, though he does acknowledge that the marketplace opportunity is big. Instead, Herman points toward the type of work applications and customers base Lenovo is hoping to support, such as data scientists.

"Obviously we're concerned about the overall commercial IT market," he adds. "But if you look at the performance part of it – those end users that would use workstations as their end device, these tend to be very mission-critical customers and users who are working on their company's next-generation revenue streams." 

"Typically, the projects that they're working on are very important... That is a good bit of money, of financial commitment, to have a data scientist, so [businesses] want to make sure they equip them with the right hardware."

In this situation, a $700 off-the-shelf laptop just isn't going to cut it. "It's going to be well-configured, with high-end GPUs, high-end CPUs, massive amounts of memory... this could be starting at a $10,000 machine and going upward from there," says Herman.

Herman also addresses the question around the cost of Linux and its upkeep.

"Lots of people say, 'Well, it's free, right?' But it's not really free. If you look at the distributions out there, they each have their own business models and if you want support from certain distributors, you have to pay for that support. At the end of the day, I don't expect significantly lower costs from a Windows system when you look at the end-to-end cost," says Herman.

Open door for open source

Aside from Red Hat and Ubuntu, Lenovo has an ongoing pilot project with the Fedora Project, through which the manufacturer will preload Fedora 32 Workstation distro onto ThinkPad P1 Gen2, ThinkPad P53 and ThinkPad X1 Gen8 devices. 

The Fedora-edition ThinkPad P53 and P1 Gen 2 are currently slated to be available mid-July. Looking ahead, Herman says the door is open to support for more Linux distributions based on customer demand – tentatively, of course.

"Obviously we're aware of the whole landscape and this is our first foray into it," says Herman. "This is a very good first step and really covers the vast majority of the footprint that is out there today.

"What we pride ourselves on is being a master integrator of other people's technologies. We see Linux as a very valuable technology platform for our customers."

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