Click here to close now.

Welcome!

Linux Authors: Pat Romanski, Liz McMillan, Roger Strukhoff, Carmen Gonzalez, Tim Hinds

Related Topics: Linux

Linux: 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
The explosion of connected devices / sensors is creating an ever-expanding set of new and valuable data. In parallel the emerging capability of Big Data technologies to store, access, analyze, and react to this data is producing changes in business models under the umbrella of the Internet of Things (IoT). In particular within the Insurance industry, IoT appears positioned to enable deep changes by altering relationships between insurers, distributors, and the insured. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Michael Sick, a Senior Manager and Big Data Architect within Ernst and Young's Financial Servi...
The Internet of Everything (IoE) brings together people, process, data and things to make networked connections more relevant and valuable than ever before – transforming information into knowledge and knowledge into wisdom. IoE creates new capabilities, richer experiences, and unprecedented opportunities to improve business and government operations, decision making and mission support capabilities. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Gary Hall, Chief Technology Officer, Federal Defense at Cisco Systems, will break down the core capabilities of IoT in multiple settings and expand upon IoE for bo...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Vitria Technology, Inc. will exhibit at SYS-CON’s @ThingsExpo, which will take place on June 9-11, 2015, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. Vitria will showcase the company’s new IoT Analytics Platform through live demonstrations at booth #330. Vitria’s IoT Analytics Platform, fully integrated and powered by an operational intelligence engine, enables customers to rapidly build and operationalize advanced analytics to deliver timely business outcomes for use cases across the industrial, enterprise, and consumer segments.
The Internet of Things (IoT) is causing data centers to become radically decentralized and atomized within a new paradigm known as “fog computing.” To support IoT applications, such as connected cars and smart grids, data centers' core functions will be decentralized out to the network's edges and endpoints (aka “fogs”). As this trend takes hold, Big Data analytics platforms will focus on high-volume log analysis (aka “logs”) and rely heavily on cognitive-computing algorithms (aka “cogs”) to make sense of it all.
SYS-CON Events announced today that GENBAND, a leading developer of real time communications software solutions, has been named “Silver Sponsor” of SYS-CON's WebRTC Summit, which will take place on June 9-11, 2015, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. The GENBAND team will be on hand to demonstrate their newest product, Kandy. Kandy is a communications Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) that enables companies to seamlessly integrate more human communications into their Web and mobile applications - creating more engaging experiences for their customers and boosting collaboration and productiv...
From telemedicine to smart cars, digital homes and industrial monitoring, the explosive growth of IoT has created exciting new business opportunities for real time calls and messaging. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Ivelin Ivanov, CEO and Co-Founder of Telestax, shared some of the new revenue sources that IoT created for Restcomm – the open source telephony platform from Telestax. Ivelin Ivanov is a technology entrepreneur who founded Mobicents, an Open Source VoIP Platform, to help create, deploy, and manage applications integrating voice, video and data. He is the co-founder of TeleStax, a...
The industrial software market has treated data with the mentality of “collect everything now, worry about how to use it later.” We now find ourselves buried in data, with the pervasive connectivity of the (Industrial) Internet of Things only piling on more numbers. There’s too much data and not enough information. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Bob Gates, Global Marketing Director, GE’s Intelligent Platforms business, to discuss how realizing the power of IoT, software developers are now focused on understanding how industrial data can create intelligence for industrial operations. Imagine ...
The explosion of connected devices / sensors is creating an ever-expanding set of new and valuable data. In parallel the emerging capability of Big Data technologies to store, access, analyze, and react to this data is producing changes in business models under the umbrella of the Internet of Things (IoT). In particular within the Insurance industry, IoT appears positioned to enable deep changes by altering relationships between insurers, distributors, and the insured. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Michael Sick, a Senior Manager and Big Data Architect within Ernst and Young's Financial Servi...
The 3rd International @ThingsExpo, co-located with the 16th International Cloud Expo - to be held June 9-11, 2015, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY - is now accepting submissions to demo smart cars on the Expo Floor. Smart car sponsorship benefits include general brand exposure and increasing engagement with the developer ecosystem.
Operational Hadoop and the Lambda Architecture for Streaming Data Apache Hadoop is emerging as a distributed platform for handling large and fast incoming streams of data. Predictive maintenance, supply chain optimization, and Internet-of-Things analysis are examples where Hadoop provides the scalable storage, processing, and analytics platform to gain meaningful insights from granular data that is typically only valuable from a large-scale, aggregate view. One architecture useful for capturing and analyzing streaming data is the Lambda Architecture, representing a model of how to analyze rea...
One of the biggest impacts of the Internet of Things is and will continue to be on data; specifically data volume, management and usage. Companies are scrambling to adapt to this new and unpredictable data reality with legacy infrastructure that cannot handle the speed and volume of data. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Don DeLoach, CEO and president of Infobright, will discuss how companies need to rethink their data infrastructure to participate in the IoT, including: Data storage: Understanding the kinds of data: structured, unstructured, big/small? Analytics: What kinds and how responsiv...
Since 2008 and for the first time in history, more than half of humans live in urban areas, urging cities to become “smart.” Today, cities can leverage the wide availability of smartphones combined with new technologies such as Beacons or NFC to connect their urban furniture and environment to create citizen-first services that improve transportation, way-finding and information delivery. In her session at @ThingsExpo, Laetitia Gazel-Anthoine, CEO of Connecthings, will focus on successful use cases.
Sensor-enabled things are becoming more commonplace, precursors to a larger and more complex framework that most consider the ultimate promise of the IoT: things connecting, interacting, sharing, storing, and over time perhaps learning and predicting based on habits, behaviors, location, preferences, purchases and more. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Tom Wesselman, Director of Communications Ecosystem Architecture at Plantronics, will examine the still nascent IoT as it is coalescing, including what it is today, what it might ultimately be, the role of wearable tech, and technology gaps stil...
Sensor-enabled things are becoming more commonplace, precursors to a larger and more complex framework that most consider the ultimate promise of the IoT: things connecting, interacting, sharing, storing, and over time perhaps learning and predicting based on habits, behaviors, location, preferences, purchases and more. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Tom Wesselman, Director of Communications Ecosystem Architecture at Plantronics, will examine the still nascent IoT as it is coalescing, including what it is today, what it might ultimately be, the role of wearable tech, and technology gaps stil...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Open Data Centers (ODC), a carrier-neutral colocation provider, will exhibit at SYS-CON's 16th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place June 9-11, 2015, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. Open Data Centers is a carrier-neutral data center operator in New Jersey and New York City offering alternative connectivity options for carriers, service providers and enterprise customers.
When it comes to the Internet of Things, hooking up will get you only so far. If you want customers to commit, you need to go beyond simply connecting products. You need to use the devices themselves to transform how you engage with every customer and how you manage the entire product lifecycle. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Sean Lorenz, Technical Product Manager for Xively at LogMeIn, will show how “product relationship management” can help you leverage your connected devices and the data they generate about customer usage and product performance to deliver extremely compelling and reliabl...
SYS-CON Events announced today that SoftLayer, an IBM company, has been named “Gold Sponsor” of SYS-CON's 16th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place June 9-11, 2015 at the Javits Center in New York City, NY, and the 17th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place November 3–5, 2015 at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. SoftLayer operates a global cloud infrastructure platform built for Internet scale. With a global footprint of data centers and network points of presence, SoftLayer provides infrastructure as a service to leading-edge customers ranging from ...
There’s Big Data, then there’s really Big Data from the Internet of Things. IoT is evolving to include many data possibilities like new types of event, log and network data. The volumes are enormous, generating tens of billions of logs per day, which raise data challenges. Early IoT deployments are relying heavily on both the cloud and managed service providers to navigate these challenges. Learn about IoT, Big Data and deployments processing massive data volumes from wearables, utilities and other machines.
The true value of the Internet of Things (IoT) lies not just in the data, but through the services that protect the data, perform the analysis and present findings in a usable way. With many IoT elements rooted in traditional IT components, Big Data and IoT isn’t just a play for enterprise. In fact, the IoT presents SMBs with the prospect of launching entirely new activities and exploring innovative areas. CompTIA research identifies several areas where IoT is expected to have the greatest impact.
The 16th International Cloud Expo has announced that its Call for Papers is open until February 28, 2015. 16th International Cloud Expo, to be held June 9-11, 2015, at the Javits Center in New York City brings together Cloud Computing, APM, APIs, Security, Big Data, Internet of Things, DevOps and WebRTC to one location. With cloud computing driving a higher percentage of enterprise IT budgets every year, it becomes increasingly important to plant your flag in this fast-expanding business opportunity. Submit your speaking proposal today!