Dell's Project Sputnik

8/1/2012 11:36:41 AM

David Briddock unveils a Dell project to entice the developer community

Project Sputnik is a six-month initiative by Dell to create a developer-centric PC. The project takes an existing laptop and replaces the de facto Windows operating system with Linux and a set of developer-friendly tools. The aim is to raise the profile of Dell's products within developer communities and corporate purchasing departments.

Why now?

Description: Dell's project sputnik
Dell's project sputnik

Times are hard for computer manufacturers. PCs sales are well down compared with previous years. The financial crisis doesn't help. However, it's the substantial rise in smartphone and tablet sales that's having the biggest effect. Proof of just how tough things have become came with HP's May announcement that it plans to reduce its global workforce by 27,000 (

Dell has decided to shift focus to the enterprise sector of the marketplace. And that means enticing the legions of software developers currently creating the next wave of web and app solutions. Project Sputnik is an attempt to get closer to this influential segment of its customer base and drive up corporate sales as a result.

Dell's timing may turn out to be perfect. Apple MacBook’s, with the Unix-based Mac OS X, have been a firm favorite with developers. Even open-source community members use these products; a somewhat surprising fact given Apple's secretive and propriety practices. But, as each new Mac OS X version leans further towards the user-centric, touch-friendly iOS model, its development pedigree is under threat.


Description: Dell logo
Dell logo

With today's emphasis on web and cloud-based development which is heavily reliant on open standards, languages and tools -there's an opportunity for Dell to turn heads with this initiative.

Sputnik elements

For the hardware element, Dell selected one of its premier laptops. The XPS 13 Ultra-book is a very capable machine. Powered by either Intel Core i5 or i7 ULV second-generation CPUs, it comes with 4GB of fast dual-channel DDR3 RAM and a solid-state disk of up to 256GB. It also incorporates Intel's 'Rapid Start Technology', a system that takes only a second to go from sleep mode to fully operational status (as seen in this XPS 13 video review:

Weighing in at just 1,4kg it's a very portable package, on a par with Apple's MacBook Air product. Advanced materials are the secret. It has an aluminums cover, magnesium alloy palm-rest and carbon fiber base. The 13.3" screen is made from a thin piece of extremely strong Gorilla Glass.

The operating system is Ubuntu 12.04, the April 2012 incarnation of the popular Linux OS distribution from the Canonical stable. Ubuntu is a safe choice. It regularly tops the Linux popularity charts and has a large, active user and developer community. As Dell has offered Ubuntu as a pre-installed option for many years, it's acquired plenty of expertise and experience with this OS.

Description: Ubuntu 12.04

Ubuntu 12.04

One key project task is to ensure all XPS 13 specific drivers and patches are applied and tested. As you'd expect with a Linux OS, Ubuntu is crammed full of useful tools and utilities, including text editors, web browsers and scripting languages. However, there's always room for improvement, so additional software will be part of the default package. I'll talk more about this software later.

Why is it called Sputnik? Well, it appears Dell likes to call its early adopters and testers 'cosmonauts'. However, Sputnik was of course, an unmanned satellite. So maybe Project Mercury, the first human spaceflight programmer for the United States, would have been a more appropriate choice.

Ubuntu benefits

As mentioned before, project Sputnik will be based on the recently released Canonical Ubuntu 12.04 LTS. This free-of-charge, comprehensive distribution is built from an independent development branch of the robust Debi a Linux ( The LTS moniker denotes a long term support release - in this case a five-year period.

Canonical Limited is a UK-based company, owned by South African entrepreneur Mark Shuttle worth. Canonical generates its revenues from selling Ubuntu technical support and services. Shuttle worth himself was involved from the beginning in Dell's concept discussions. It was a smart move, because Shuttle worth saw a bigger opportunity to define, develop and formalize a common set of tools for all aspects of software development and testing.

This tool set extends the existing collection of Linux software by adding powerful web, cloud and app-friendly development environments. Examples include the ever popular Eclipse platform for multi-language development and testing, and Gait-based source control management software. All the key web languages, such as HTML CSS and JavaScript will be supported. Other languages, such as Ruby, will depend on the 'feedback noise' generated by their proponents.

Mobile app support will be important too. Android development tools are another early target, so both the Android and Java software development kits (SDKs) will need to be included. Additional support for App celebrator, Phone-Gap and similar mobile-targeted JavaScript-based frameworks may also be considered.

One suggested scenario is for web and app developers to work with 'micro clouds' on their local machine, before the final solutions are pushed out to a real-world public or private cloud. Incorporating Open-Stack technologies is another idea. Open-Stack was founded by Rackspace Hosting and Nasa to create a series of interrelated technology projects for cloud infrastructure solutions. It's freely available under the Apache 2.0    license.

Dell employee Barton George has created a seven-minute video overview of Project Sputnik ( He talks about being able to select self-contained language and operating system profile packages as part of a simplified configuration operation. JavaScript, Ruby and Android are just some suggested profile packages.

Description: Project Sputnik is based on Dell’s XPS13 ultra-book and supports Ubuntu 12.04.
Project Sputnik is based on Dell’s XPS13 ultra-book and supports Ubuntu 12.04.

Community feedback

One of the biggest benefits to selecting Ubuntu is its massive user and developer community. There's a particularly impressive collection of informational websites, interactive forums and videos of all aspects of the operating system. And plenty of opportunity to getting personally involved.

Throughout the six-month trial Dell will attempt to elicit plenty of developer-centric suggestions and comments. For some time now, Dell has used its Idea Storm site to gather feedback. Now there's a Sputnik Storm session (, which allows anyone to contribute to the success of the project.

Sputnik will be available as a Linux distribution image, so you'll be able to give it a whirl in a virtual machine (VM) environment, such as Oracle's Virtual Box or a Parallels VM. Or, if you're feeling adventurous, you can install it onto another PC.

What’s next?

Sputnik is an exploratory project. At the end of the six-month trial period, Dell will make a decision as to its future. A successful prognosis is likely to result in a significant extension to its scope. Additional Dell products will be given the 'Sputnik' treatment, such as one of its more powerful desktop machines.

As with any community initiative, it's the people who'll have the biggest say in what happens next. So over to you

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