Welcome!

Linux Containers Authors: Reinhard Brandstädter, Elizabeth White, Liz McMillan, Flint Brenton, Sujoy Sen

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 EastBanc Technologies will exhibit at SYS-CON's 18th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on June 7-9, 2016, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. EastBanc Technologies has been working at the frontier of technology since 1999. Today, the firm provides full-lifecycle software development delivering flexible technology solutions that seamlessly integrate with existing systems – whether on premise or cloud. EastBanc Technologies partners with p...
The IoTs will challenge the status quo of how IT and development organizations operate. Or will it? Certainly the fog layer of IoT requires special insights about data ontology, security and transactional integrity. But the developmental challenges are the same: People, Process and Platform. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Craig Sproule, CEO of Metavine, will demonstrate how to move beyond today's coding paradigm and share the must-have mindsets for removing complexity from the development proc...
SYS-CON Events announced today BZ Media LLC has been named “Media Sponsor” of SYS-CON's 19th International Cloud Expo, which will take place on November 1–3, 2016, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. BZ Media LLC is a high-tech media company that produces technical conferences and expositions, and publishes a magazine, newsletters and websites in the software development, SharePoint, mobile development and Commercial Drone markets.
SYS-CON Events announced today that ContentMX, the marketing technology and services company with a singular mission to increase engagement and drive more conversations for enterprise, channel and SMB technology marketers, has been named “Sponsor & Exhibitor Lounge Sponsor” of SYS-CON's 18th Cloud Expo, which will take place on June 7-9, 2016, at the Javits Center in New York City, New York. “CloudExpo is a great opportunity to start a conversation with new prospects, but what happens after the...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Alert Logic, Inc., the leading provider of Security-as-a-Service solutions for the cloud, will exhibit at SYS-CON's 18th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on June 7-9, 2016, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. Alert Logic, Inc., provides Security-as-a-Service for on-premises, cloud, and hybrid infrastructures, delivering deep security insight and continuous protection for customers at a lower cost than traditional security solutions. Ful...
SYS-CON Events announced today that MangoApps will exhibit at SYS-CON's 18th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on June 7-9, 2016, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. MangoApps provides modern company intranets and team collaboration software, allowing workers to stay connected and productive from anywhere in the world and from any device. For more information, please visit https://www.mangoapps.com/.
WebRTC is bringing significant change to the communications landscape that will bridge the worlds of web and telephony, making the Internet the new standard for communications. Cloud9 took the road less traveled and used WebRTC to create a downloadable enterprise-grade communications platform that is changing the communication dynamic in the financial sector. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Leo Papadopoulos, CTO of Cloud9, will discuss the importance of WebRTC and how it enables companies to fo...
In his session at 18th Cloud Expo, Bruce Swann, Senior Product Marketing Manager at Adobe, will discuss how the Adobe Marketing Cloud can help marketers embrace opportunities for personalized, relevant and real-time customer engagement across offline (direct mail, point of sale, call center) and digital (email, website, SMS, mobile apps, social networks, connected objects). Bruce Swann has more than 15 years of experience working with digital marketing disciplines like web analytics, social med...
The IoT is changing the way enterprises conduct business. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Eric Hoffman, Vice President at EastBanc Technologies, discuss how businesses can gain an edge over competitors by empowering consumers to take control through IoT. We'll cite examples such as a Washington, D.C.-based sports club that leveraged IoT and the cloud to develop a comprehensive booking system. He'll also highlight how IoT can revitalize and restore outdated business models, making them profitable...
IoT generates lots of temporal data. But how do you unlock its value? How do you coordinate the diverse moving parts that must come together when developing your IoT product? What are the key challenges addressed by Data as a Service? How does cloud computing underlie and connect the notions of Digital and DevOps What is the impact of the API economy? What is the business imperative for Cognitive Computing? Get all these questions and hundreds more like them answered at the 18th Cloud Expo...
SYS-CON Events announced today the How to Create Angular 2 Clients for the Cloud Workshop, being held June 7, 2016, in conjunction with 18th Cloud Expo | @ThingsExpo, at the Javits Center in New York, NY. Angular 2 is a complete re-write of the popular framework AngularJS. Programming in Angular 2 is greatly simplified. Now it’s a component-based well-performing framework. The immersive one-day workshop led by Yakov Fain, a Java Champion and a co-founder of the IT consultancy Farata Systems and...
Customer experience has become a competitive differentiator for companies, and it’s imperative that brands seamlessly connect the customer journey across all platforms. With the continued explosion of IoT, join us for a look at how to build a winning digital foundation in the connected era – today and in the future. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Chris Nguyen, Group Product Marketing Manager at Adobe, will discuss how to successfully leverage mobile, rapidly deploy content, capture real-time d...
SYS-CON Events announced today that BMC Software has been named "Siver Sponsor" of SYS-CON's 18th Cloud Expo, which will take place on June 7-9, 2015 at the Javits Center in New York, New York. BMC is a global leader in innovative software solutions that help businesses transform into digital enterprises for the ultimate competitive advantage. BMC Digital Enterprise Management is a set of innovative IT solutions designed to make digital business fast, seamless, and optimized from mainframe to mo...
What a difference a year makes. Organizations aren’t just talking about IoT possibilities, it is now baked into their core business strategy. With IoT, billions of devices generating data from different companies on different networks around the globe need to interact. From efficiency to better customer insights to completely new business models, IoT will turn traditional business models upside down. In the new customer-centric age, the key to success is delivering critical services and apps wit...
Join us at Cloud Expo | @ThingsExpo 2016 – June 7-9 at the Javits Center in New York City and November 1-3 at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA – and deliver your unique message in a way that is striking and unforgettable by taking advantage of SYS-CON's unmatched high-impact, result-driven event / media packages.
In his keynote at 18th Cloud Expo, Andrew Keys, Co-Founder of ConsenSys Enterprise, will provide an overview of the evolution of the Internet and the Database and the future of their combination – the Blockchain. Andrew Keys is Co-Founder of ConsenSys Enterprise. He comes to ConsenSys Enterprise with capital markets, technology and entrepreneurial experience. Previously, he worked for UBS investment bank in equities analysis. Later, he was responsible for the creation and distribution of life ...
SYS-CON Events announced today that MobiDev will exhibit at SYS-CON's 18th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on June 7-9, 2016, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. MobiDev is a software company that develops and delivers turn-key mobile apps, websites, web services, and complex software systems for startups and enterprises. Since 2009 it has grown from a small group of passionate engineers and business managers to a full-scale mobile software company with over 200 develope...
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 Web startups to global enterprises. SoftLayer's modular architecture, full-featured API, and sophisticated automation provide unparalleled performance and control. Its flexible unified platform seamlessly spans physical and virtual devices linked via a world...
Companies can harness IoT and predictive analytics to sustain business continuity; predict and manage site performance during emergencies; minimize expensive reactive maintenance; and forecast equipment and maintenance budgets and expenditures. Providing cost-effective, uninterrupted service is challenging, particularly for organizations with geographically dispersed operations.
SYS-CON Events announced today TechTarget has been named “Media Sponsor” of SYS-CON's 18th International Cloud Expo, which will take place on June 7–9, 2016, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY, and the 19th International Cloud Expo, which will take place on November 1–3, 2016, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. TechTarget is the Web’s leading destination for serious technology buyers researching and making enterprise technology decisions. Its extensive global networ...