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September 21st, 2016

Surprise! Microsoft Isn’t Blocking Linux on Lenovo Laptops

It was easy to place the blame on Microsoft in a knee-jerk reaction — and it didn’t help that a Lenovo representative placed blame firmly in Redmond’s lap. It appears, however, that Microsoft’s not involved, and Lenovo’s not to blame either.

The news of the day, so far, has been the speculation that machines designed to run the Microsoft’s Signature Edition of Windows block GNU/Linux from being installed. The Signature Edition is an edition of preinstalled Windows without any of the third-party junk that typically infests new Windows computers out-of-the-box.

No Linux allowed LenovoThis fear arose, and became a big deal on Reddit, after a Redditor posted, “Warning: Microsoft Signature PC program now requires that you can’t run Linux. Lenovo’s recent Ultrabooks among affected systems.”

The poster had evidently purchased a Yoga 900 ISK2 Ultrabook at Best Buy, and after complaining about the issue on the chain’s online review section received a reply from a Lenovo Product Expert which dropped the problem in Microsoft’s lap: “This system has a Signature Edition of Windows 10 Home installed. It is locked per our agreement with Microsoft.”

[A link to this comment on the Best Buy website which worked as I began writing this article, now redirects to the laptop’s product page.]

After this was posted, other reports began to surface indicating that Lenovo’s Yoga 900S and Yoga 710S laptops also fail when Linux installations are attempted. In all cases, the failure is because SSD is locked in a proprietary RAID mode unsupported by Linux.

It was easy to jump on the bandwagon and blame Microsoft for this — which many did — because it seems just exactly like something from Redmond’s bag of tricks. However, it appears not to be Microsoft’s doing at all, and also isn’t the fault of Lenovo.

While covering this story for ZDNet, Adrian Kingsley-Hughes reached out to Lenovo about the issue and received the following reply:

“To improve system performance, Lenovo is leading an industry trend of adopting RAID on the SSDs in certain product configurations. Lenovo does not intentionally block customers using other operating systems on its devices and is fully committed to providing Linux certifications and installation guidance on a wide range of products -https://support.lenovo.com/us/en/documents/pd031426. Unsupported models will rely on Linux operating system vendors releasing new kernel and drivers to support features such as RAID on SSD.”

In other words, it looks as if the problem is simply that required drivers have not yet made it into Linux. No doubt, now that this brouhaha has erupted, that will be quickly remedied and Linux will soon be installable on the devices affected.

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Christine Hall has been a journalist since 1971. In 2001, she began writing a weekly consumer computer column and started covering Linux and FOSS in 2002 after making the switch to GNU/Linux. Follow her on Twitter: @BrideOfLinux

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23 comments to Surprise! Microsoft Isn’t Blocking Linux on Lenovo Laptops

  • Mike S.

    @Christine,
    Thanks for following the story to its conclusion. I originally saw this at Phoronix, and while that site is often an excellent source of information I fear the owner occasionally incorporates inflammatory content to boost advertising revenue.

  • hellscyth (same reddit username)

    I was on the reddit thread earlier. It’s still Microsoft’s fault. They specifically put it in the contract that the bios had to be locked to the fastest performance. However, what has happened may violate tying laws.

  • Mike Eff

    Don’t let M$ off so easy, they are masters of behind-the-scenes shenanigans. I doubt very much Lenovo implemented a locked down, proprietary RAID with out a customer request!! The forum postings make it very clear that this mode CANNOT be disabled!

    Yet another reason to stay away from Lenovo products.

  • Mike

    I’ve never heard of a vendor doing this before. There is ZERO reason to lock down a system such that the owner can’t change fundamental settings.

    I suspect it WAS part of Microsoft’s plan to block Linux and the rep let the cat out of the bag. That would explain why they’ve been locking/deleting posts related to it.

  • Mike

    Well, I was wondering what shady crap Microsoft would do to drive Windows 10 adoption since the whole “free upgrade whether you like it or not” fiasco wound down.

  • tracyanne

    This is precisely why I don’t buy a computer with Windows already installed, and why I always buy one with Linux pre installed, even if it costs me more up front.

  • adam

    “We put a new raid configuration on our SSD’s and worked with MS developers to make sure they had the drivers needed to use it. We then locked down our BIOS so the drives cannot be operated any other way. We did not tell the linux community we were doing this, but hey, that’s not our fault.”

    Really?

  • Mike

    Anyone who believes in the new kinder gentler Microsoft who loves Linux needs their head examined.

  • BD

    Surprise! Surprise! Surprise!

    The outcome is the same Dude!

    Sometimes it helps to look at the outcome and all the fuss will be some noise …

  • “…it looks as if the problem is simply that required drivers have not yet made it into Linux.”

    No it doesn’t. The laptop is locked down in a proprietary RAID mode which cannot be disabled. Even if you could install Linux in an underperforming mode (and this was reported as a success upon BIOS reflashing), this is not a possiblity because Lenovo DISABLED changing this parameter in BIOS, either because of its own stupidity or because Redmond forces it to do so. It’s a clusterfull of failures and Lenovo and maybe Microsoft are at fault.

  • John

    Convenient explanation from Lenovo.

    So, if I create a driver that someone can not implement in a Linux distribution, it is his mistake, not something that I did intentionally.

    As I said, a convenient explanation. And after someone creates a driver, Lenovo will update the code and, oh! did your Linux installation just got corrupted? Blame your Linux distribution.

  • Charles Wegrzyn

    Sorry to tell all you conspiracy lovers this is technology moving forward. The RAID mode was present on Alienware 17 R2 SSDs from over two years ago!!! I know since I have one and if you go into the BIOS you can see it.

    At the time the SSDs of the time used the SATA interface and not NVME, which is the high-performance PCI E interface used now. It just so happened the Alienware system also supported the AHCI mode on the SSDs if you wanted it, but it was a BIOS issue.

    On my ASUS G752VS OC the SSDs only support the RAID interface. So what? I can still install Linux on the laptop. Sure the Linux distro doesn’t come with the NVME driver installed, but once again BFD. Intel provided a lot of information on setting up the driver.

  • Mike

    @Charles Wegrzyn

    From the nvmexpress website:

    “All major Linux distributions have NVMe driver in-box support….The current status of the driver is included in the kernel (3.3 or later).”

    This doesn’t sound like the same thing at all.

    No conspiracy theory needed…Microsoft has a proven track record of crap like this, so it is no stretch at all to believe they’d take advantage of anything they could to discourage Linux adoption (although I believe this is more directly about forcing Windows 10 adoption, which amounts to roughly the same thing.)

  • Locking you out of modifying a bios setting is just WRONG when you own the laptop. I own 6 Lenovo laptops (my kid has two) and 3 Lenovo workstations. I’m going to think twice when the next purchase happens.

  • @Charles Wegrzyn: “It just so happened the Alienware system also supported the AHCI mode on the SSDs if you wanted it, but it was a BIOS issue.”

    In other words, it “just so happened” that Alienware didn’t intentionally prevent its customers from changing a BIOS setting.

  • W. Anderson

    It is unfortunate that the solution to many Lenovo users installing Linux was solved only by loud and public complaints which seems to be the only way these companies pay close attention to legitimate concerns about Linux as a viable and credible alternative choice of desktop/notebook Operating Systems (OS) on their hardware.
    If one does not loudly and publicly complain to get issues resulved, then Lenovo, HP, Dell and other will simply ignore any requests about the topic of Linux, which they consider a nuisance and/or distraction.

  • CFWhitman

    It’s unlikely that this is a tactic by Microsoft to lock Linux out. Their involvement in this happening is small and indirect.

    This starts with a hard drive controller that has more than one mode of operation. In one of the modes, it acts like a standard SATA controller and Linux works fine. In another mode, it has RAID support, and Linux doesn’t work because there is no driver developed by Intel (who makes the controller) for Linux in the kernel thus far.

    Lenovo has very little control about what drivers Intel develops for their hardware, and isn’t particularly concerned with whether Linux works on consumer laptops (business laptops are a different story). So they likely didn’t even look into any problems with Linux support when they selected the controller for the laptop, and normally, you could go into the firmware and select either mode anyway.

    Now comes possible involvement from Microsoft. It’s unclear what all the requirements are for a laptop to carry the “Signature Edition” label. However, this label is intended to indicate higher performance computing, and it is known that it prohibits shovelware. It seems that it may also require hardware to be locked into whatever mode is considered the highest performing mode it can operate in. In this case, that would mean that the firmware for these “Signature Edition” laptops is locked into the RAID mode, because that mode gives faster performance, and especially provides better battery life (because it requires the Intel developed driver specifically for this hardware rather than operating with a standard SATA driver). Since no driver exists for Linux for this controller mode, that makes it so Linux will not install.

    It’s unlikely that Microsoft puts this clause in their contract for “Signature Edition” PCs to create obstacles for other operating systems because most of the time, it doesn’t stop other operating systems from working. In this particular case, it happens to. Of course, it’s unlikely that they are shedding any tears over this either.

    Personally, I don’t think locking out normally existing options in the name of performance is consumer friendly. Defaulting to desired settings is fine, but locking out other settings is hostile.

  • @CFWhitman Maybe so, but it’s not as if MS isn’t aware of the potential for disabling BIOS changes to disable alternate OS’s. We’ve been talking about Secure Boot since it was still called Palladium.

  • Mike

    Lenovo is pretty damn consumer hostile to start with…Superfish anyone? How about the Lenovo Service Engine?

    There were rumblings years ago about hardware backdoors too.

    You couldn’t pay me to run a Lenovo.

  • cumD

    Sounds like un fer practice after all?

  • John Lauro

    It may not have been intentional (up for debate…), but no matter how I look at it, it’s Lenovo’s fault for not catching it in quality control testing. It may be that they simply don’t support Linux (no one said they have to), but it’s Lenovo’s fault they do not, and to try to say otherwise is just nonsense. A better response would be, we do not support Linux on our devices, and never claimed to, we suggest you purchase products elsewhere. If you can’t wait for the Linux community or overcome our lack of support, here is how you get a refund.

  • Mark

    Supposedly about 5000 lines of code are removed from the Linux code archive each day, while 10000 lines are added, with the greatest quantity of added code coming from Intel. If Intel is the most prolific contributor to Linux code, then what is the difficulty for Intel to create the required Linux driver? Something seems fishy here.