Welcome!

Linux Containers Authors: XebiaLabs Blog, William Schmarzo, Olivier Huynh Van, Derek Weeks, Stackify Blog

Related Topics: Linux Containers

Linux Containers: Article

Thin Client Linux: Thin Is In

Should you migrate to thin client Linux?

As with all big conferences, LinuxWorld Boston earlier this year had a few broad themes that you couldn't help be exposed to just by walking the floor. One that caught me by surprise was the excitement around thin client Linux. At first I attributed it to a combination of the big vendors pushing blade computing and the malaise that had developed around desktop Linux. For the past few years the battle cry had been "This is the year of Linux on the desktop." Linus Torvalds himself made the assertion in a few interviews. Well...Windows hasn't been crushed in an avalanche of Linux adoption on the desktop. I personally believe that desktop Linux is going to be less of an avalanche and more like the buildup of sand on the beach - gradual, constant, and imperceptible to the casual onlooker. The lack of widespread adoption however had people like Jeremy White of Codeweavers talking about going through the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) when they discovered that the year of the Linux desktop had yet to arrive.

Initially I viewed thin client Linux as a symptom of the third stage of grief - bargaining. I pictured people telling themselves "If desktop Linux isn't going to take over the world, maybe thin client Linux can." After all, I had seen Larry Ellison and Oracle with his "Network Computer" (along with Sun and others) bet big on the thin client as a Windows killer in the mid-90s only to have it go nowhere. The idea of ending Microsoft's reign over the desktop with an entirely new architecture is appealing. I couldn't just dismiss it out of hand as wishful thinking by those heavily invested in desktop Linux however. I personally knew some businesses that were using thin client infrastructures very successfully. In the mid-90s this was definitely not the case. Harrison Ford once said, "We all have big changes in our lives that are more or less a second chance." Had thin client actually changed since the mid-90s or was this just an undeserved second chance?

What Is a Thin Client?
The basic premise of thin client computing is that a number of users can get most of their computing resources (disk and CPU) from a central server and use their local machine just for display and input (keyboard and mouse). This lets cheap, underpowered computers (or repurposed old computers) be put on each user's desktop. Each of these then connect to a more powerful central server to run applications. In the purest thin client scenario the client computers are diskless and even boot an operating system over the network via the thin client server, which begs the question: How is Linux especially suited for this purpose?

Why Thin Client Linux Works
Thin client Linux works for two reasons. First, almost accidentally, Linux does a great job of separating application data (or "shareable data," as it's sometimes called) from user data. Application data is the general configuration of an application needed to make it work for all users (for example, the set of standard document templates in OpenOffice). User data is the configuration information that's changed by and specific to each individual user. The user's custom dictionary in OpenOffice is an example. Web browser bookmarks are another example. I say "almost accidentally" because Linux, like Unix, was designed as a secure multiuser system and the separation of application data grew out of that design. This system encourages individual users to run in their own environment with access only to their own individual portion of the file system. Applications that don't store user data in each individual user's portion of the file system simply don't work on Linux. This creates a strong incentive for application developers to develop their applications to separate user data from application data. Another contributing factor is the fact that a central "registry" for application data came late to the Linux world. This allowed the developers of the major Linux desktop environments to avoid the problems of the Windows registry by storing the user-specific portions of the registry in the individual user's portion of the file system. For these two reasons virtually all Linux applications store user data correctly. This may seem common sense, but I can assure you the same is not true on the Windows desktop. Large numbers of Windows applications store user data in shared areas (like c:\program files) despite the fact that Windows has been a multiuser system for some time now and Microsoft has greatly discouraged this practice.

The second reason thin client Linux works is that Linux's user interface is built on top of the X Window System, which is client/server based even when running on the same computer. In X Windows terminology, the client (or application) can use the X Window server (the display) to display the desktop, show application windows, access input, etc. Although the names client and server are reversed in the X Windows/thin client terminology, this is exactly what a thin client requires. The ability to display an application that's being run on a central server on a remote client computer is fundamental to thin client computing and is built into Linux through X Windows.

These two aspects of the Linux architecture significantly reduce the effort required to develop thin client solutions based on Linux. Let's take a look at some of the current solutions available.

Current Solutions
Thin client implementations currently available range from documents that cobble together publicly available tools (see http://trieste.linux.it/documenti/ThinClient.html, for example) to full-blown commercial thin client packages that include both hardware and software.

The most well-known thin client solution for Linux is the Linux Terminal Server Project or LTSP (www.ltsp.org), a mature Open Source project that installs on a Linux server and lets you boot Linux clients via a number of different methods including PXE, which is supported by most modern network cards. LTSP relies on the X Windows protocol and NFS, a protocol for sharing files over the network that provides thin client support. To install LTSP on a client you must build a special client kernel (or use one of the pre-compiled ones that are supplied). LTSP can be a little difficult to set up but projects based on LTSP that simplify setup are already popping up. The Norwegian Skolelinux ("skole" means "school") is LTSP with expanded documentation and a simplified installation.

There are a number of other Linux-based thin client solutions. PXES (http://pxes.sourceforge.net) is a "micro" Linux distribution that can be used to access a thin client server using the X Windows protocol (like LTSP) as well as a number of other protocols including VNC, which is a remote control protocol originally developed by AT&T and available on Linux.

Another project that has drawn some interest lately is Ndiyo! (pronounced nn-dee-yo). It's attempting to develop an "ultra-thin" client (video and Ethernet adapter) that can eventually be incorporated directly into a monitor. Ndiyo! is an effort of Newnham Research in the UK (www.newnhamresearch.com/). It's not ready for enterprise deployment but stay tuned.

More Stories By Jon Walker

Jon Walker serves as CTO of Versora, an ISV providing Microsoft to Linux migration software. Mr. Walker recently has co-authored 2 whitepapers with Novell titled Migrating from IS Web Servers to Apache SUSE LINUX Enterprise Server 9.0 and Migrating File and Print Servers from Windows to SUSE LINUX Enterprise Server 9. Prior to Versora, Mr. Walker was CTO/VP of Engineering for Miramar Systems. Software developed under his direction at Miramar has been deployed to over 20 million computers worldwide. Mr. Walker has also served as senior technologist for Nortel and Xing Technology (now Real Networks).

Comments (3) View Comments

Share your thoughts on this story.

Add your comment
You must be signed in to add a comment. Sign-in | Register

In accordance with our Comment Policy, we encourage comments that are on topic, relevant and to-the-point. We will remove comments that include profanity, personal attacks, racial slurs, threats of violence, or other inappropriate material that violates our Terms and Conditions, and will block users who make repeated violations. We ask all readers to expect diversity of opinion and to treat one another with dignity and respect.


Most Recent Comments
SijiSunny 04/24/06 07:59:54 AM EDT

I am siji Sunny from C-DAC Mumbai working with OpenSource Research And Development and now I am working with Thin Client machines with Indian Language support in Client side and I had did it

SijiSunny 04/24/06 07:59:37 AM EDT

I am siji Sunny from C-DAC Mumbai working with OpenSource Research And Development and now I am working with Thin Client machines with Indian Language support in Client side and I had did it

dtmilano 06/15/05 12:17:21 PM EDT

PXES Universal Linux Thin Client I:
I think that something very important is missing in this article and it is the concept of deploying PXES to access diverse set of servers using a wide range of protocols (XDM, ICA, RDP, VNC, NX, SSH, etc.).

PXES Universal Linux Thin Client II:
Established as the most important Open Source thin client project (see http://pxes.sf.net/images/PXES_Search_Engines.png), PXES Universal Linux Thin Client is standing out as a clear alternative to proprietary operating systems in the desktop.

@ThingsExpo Stories
SYS-CON Events announced today that Ocean9will exhibit at SYS-CON's 20th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on June 6-8, 2017, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. Ocean9 provides cloud services for Backup, Disaster Recovery (DRaaS) and instant Innovation, and redefines enterprise infrastructure with its cloud native subscription offerings for mission critical SAP workloads.
Things are changing so quickly in IoT that it would take a wizard to predict which ecosystem will gain the most traction. In order for IoT to reach its potential, smart devices must be able to work together. Today, there are a slew of interoperability standards being promoted by big names to make this happen: HomeKit, Brillo and Alljoyn. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Adam Justice, vice president and general manager of Grid Connect, will review what happens when smart devices don’t work togethe...
SYS-CON Events announced today that SoftLayer, an IBM Company, has been named “Gold Sponsor” of SYS-CON's 18th Cloud Expo, which will take place on June 7-9, 2016, at the Javits Center in New York, New York. SoftLayer, an IBM Company, provides cloud infrastructure as a service from a growing number of data centers and network points of presence around the world. SoftLayer’s customers range from Web startups to global enterprises.
SYS-CON Events announced today that Technologic Systems Inc., an embedded systems solutions company, will exhibit at SYS-CON's @ThingsExpo, which will take place on June 6-8, 2017, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. Technologic Systems is an embedded systems company with headquarters in Fountain Hills, Arizona. They have been in business for 32 years, helping more than 8,000 OEM customers and building over a hundred COTS products that have never been discontinued. Technologic Systems’ pr...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Auditwerx will exhibit at SYS-CON's 20th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on June 6-8, 2017, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. Auditwerx specializes in SOC 1, SOC 2, and SOC 3 attestation services throughout the U.S. and Canada. As a division of Carr, Riggs & Ingram (CRI), one of the top 20 largest CPA firms nationally, you can expect the resources, skills, and experience of a much larger firm combined with the accessibility and attent...
SYS-CON Events announced today that CA Technologies has been named “Platinum Sponsor” of SYS-CON's 20th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on June 6-8, 2017, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY, and the 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place October 31-November 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. CA Technologies helps customers succeed in a future where every business – from apparel to energy – is being rewritten by software. From ...
SYS-CON Events announced today that HTBase will exhibit at SYS-CON's 20th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on June 6-8, 2017, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. HTBase (Gartner 2016 Cool Vendor) delivers a Composable IT infrastructure solution architected for agility and increased efficiency. It turns compute, storage, and fabric into fluid pools of resources that are easily composed and re-composed to meet each application’s needs. With HTBase, companies can quickly prov...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Loom Systems will exhibit at SYS-CON's 20th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on June 6-8, 2017, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. Founded in 2015, Loom Systems delivers an advanced AI solution to predict and prevent problems in the digital business. Loom stands alone in the industry as an AI analysis platform requiring no prior math knowledge from operators, leveraging the existing staff to succeed in the digital era. With offices in S...
Buzzword alert: Microservices and IoT at a DevOps conference? What could possibly go wrong? In this Power Panel at DevOps Summit, moderated by Jason Bloomberg, the leading expert on architecting agility for the enterprise and president of Intellyx, panelists peeled away the buzz and discuss the important architectural principles behind implementing IoT solutions for the enterprise. As remote IoT devices and sensors become increasingly intelligent, they become part of our distributed cloud enviro...
SYS-CON Events announced today that T-Mobile will exhibit at SYS-CON's 20th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on June 6-8, 2017, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. As America's Un-carrier, T-Mobile US, Inc., is redefining the way consumers and businesses buy wireless services through leading product and service innovation. The Company's advanced nationwide 4G LTE network delivers outstanding wireless experiences to 67.4 million customers who are unwilling to compromise on ...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Infranics will exhibit at SYS-CON's 20th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on June 6-8, 2017, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. Since 2000, Infranics has developed SysMaster Suite, which is required for the stable and efficient management of ICT infrastructure. The ICT management solution developed and provided by Infranics continues to add intelligence to the ICT infrastructure through the IMC (Infra Management Cycle) based on mathemat...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Interoute, owner-operator of one of Europe's largest networks and a global cloud services platform, has been named “Bronze Sponsor” of SYS-CON's 20th Cloud Expo, which will take place on June 6-8, 2017 at the Javits Center in New York, New York. Interoute is the owner-operator of one of Europe's largest networks and a global cloud services platform which encompasses 12 data centers, 14 virtual data centers and 31 colocation centers, with connections to 195 add...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Cloudistics, an on-premises cloud computing company, has been named “Bronze Sponsor” of SYS-CON's 20th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on June 6-8, 2017, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. Cloudistics delivers a complete public cloud experience with composable on-premises infrastructures to medium and large enterprises. Its software-defined technology natively converges network, storage, compute, virtualization, and management into a ...
In his session at @ThingsExpo, Eric Lachapelle, CEO of the Professional Evaluation and Certification Board (PECB), will provide an overview of various initiatives to certifiy the security of connected devices and future trends in ensuring public trust of IoT. Eric Lachapelle is the Chief Executive Officer of the Professional Evaluation and Certification Board (PECB), an international certification body. His role is to help companies and individuals to achieve professional, accredited and worldw...
In his General Session at 16th Cloud Expo, David Shacochis, host of The Hybrid IT Files podcast and Vice President at CenturyLink, investigated three key trends of the “gigabit economy" though the story of a Fortune 500 communications company in transformation. Narrating how multi-modal hybrid IT, service automation, and agile delivery all intersect, he will cover the role of storytelling and empathy in achieving strategic alignment between the enterprise and its information technology.
Microservices are a very exciting architectural approach that many organizations are looking to as a way to accelerate innovation. Microservices promise to allow teams to move away from monolithic "ball of mud" systems, but the reality is that, in the vast majority of organizations, different projects and technologies will continue to be developed at different speeds. How to handle the dependencies between these disparate systems with different iteration cycles? Consider the "canoncial problem" ...
The Internet of Things is clearly many things: data collection and analytics, wearables, Smart Grids and Smart Cities, the Industrial Internet, and more. Cool platforms like Arduino, Raspberry Pi, Intel's Galileo and Edison, and a diverse world of sensors are making the IoT a great toy box for developers in all these areas. In this Power Panel at @ThingsExpo, moderated by Conference Chair Roger Strukhoff, panelists discussed what things are the most important, which will have the most profound e...
Keeping pace with advancements in software delivery processes and tooling is taxing even for the most proficient organizations. Point tools, platforms, open source and the increasing adoption of private and public cloud services requires strong engineering rigor - all in the face of developer demands to use the tools of choice. As Agile has settled in as a mainstream practice, now DevOps has emerged as the next wave to improve software delivery speed and output. To make DevOps work, organization...
My team embarked on building a data lake for our sales and marketing data to better understand customer journeys. This required building a hybrid data pipeline to connect our cloud CRM with the new Hadoop Data Lake. One challenge is that IT was not in a position to provide support until we proved value and marketing did not have the experience, so we embarked on the journey ourselves within the product marketing team for our line of business within Progress. In his session at @BigDataExpo, Sum...
Web Real-Time Communication APIs have quickly revolutionized what browsers are capable of. In addition to video and audio streams, we can now bi-directionally send arbitrary data over WebRTC's PeerConnection Data Channels. With the advent of Progressive Web Apps and new hardware APIs such as WebBluetooh and WebUSB, we can finally enable users to stitch together the Internet of Things directly from their browsers while communicating privately and securely in a decentralized way.