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Interview with Userful CEO and Founder Tim Griffin

Userful is the inverse of VMware

Userful of Calgary, Alberta, makes a resource-sharing system for Linux called 1-Box (www.userful.com). 1-Box is a multiuser approach to Linux desktop computing that turns a single computer into a network of up to 10 workstations. Traditional networks require a server, networking equipment, and individual PCs for each user. 1-Box approach eliminates all this. Each station requires only a standard monitor, keyboard, and mouse, but operates like an independent PC. Each user can operate simultaneously and independently, running the same or different applications securely and privately. Monitors, keyboard, and mice are physically connected to the computer rather than use a thin client model where the display is sent back and forth over a network. This makes sense for computer labs and libraries or other situations where you need a kiosk type of computing. Besides extending the usefulness of desktop hardware, Userful provides a hardened desktop environment where user sessions are locked down to prevent malicious viruses or worms or even user-introduced problems. I had the opportunity to speak with Tim Griffin, Userful's CEO about the company and find out more about it.

LWM: So what is Userful's core business and how does it rely on Open Source technology to solve desktop computing problems?

Our core business is developing innovative ways to multiply the value of desktop Linux. Currently we're doing that on two levels, first with Desktop Multiplier, which turns one computer into 10, and second with Discover Station, which provides a desktop management and security layer for Linux-based public computers.

Open Source technology is integral to our products and operations. In fact it's impossible to imagine our company without it. It has enabled us to become a different type of ISV than we're used to in the Windows world. Traditionally integration represents the largest chunk of desktop total cost of ownership (TCO). Open Source enables vendors such as Userful to eliminate these integration costs for the end customers. For example, we deliver a complete pre-integrated desktop install CD customized to our customer's needs. This wouldn't be feasible without Open Source.

LWM: Do you have any relationships with any Open Source groups or projects that are helping your technology?

Like all Linux companies, each new feature that's added to Gnome, KDE, or the kernel (or any key desktop project) helps overcome objections organizations make over the switch to Linux.

Our software sits on top of the Linux distribution, so our development philosophy has always been to intervene as little as possible with the core Linux stack. This facilitates portability and ensures we can keep pace with the rapid rate of change in desktop Linux.

LWM: What is your company background? How did you start? Why did you choose this line of business?

The initial idea came back in 1999. We were doing Open Source Web development consulting. Like most Web companies at the time we were growing rapidly. However, each new user we added to the network created a substantial time drain in configuring his desktop workstation. We figured why couldn't we just plug in an extra video card and USB keyboard and simplify our computer management burden.

At that time we were one of a handful of companies in the country using Linux on the desktop, but for us the writing was already on the wall. Linux's astounding growth on the server would in time also happen on the desktop. Linux was clearly the growth opportunity, and turning one computer into 10 seemed like a strong technology to help drive that growth and offer compelling value to customers.

LWM: Can you give me some examples of where Userful has been successful? What kinds of customers are they? Are they looking for Linux solutions or just solutions to a certain problem?

We've been very successful in getting Windows-centric locked-down desktop customers to switch, for example, libraries, hospitality accounts, universities, and schools. We've done this by bundling Linux into complete desktop solutions with our 10-to-1 advantage.

Customers rarely come looking for Linux. When we started out customers would come to us looking for a point solution, e.g., something to "provide desktop security" or "manage time limits." Now that our reputation has grown people are coming to us because they've heard about our complete solution for public computing.

I believe to succeed in selling desktop Linux you have to sell a solution. This makes a sale more complex than simply selling white box computers with an operating system, however, the great thing about selling solutions is that the margins are higher, and the customers end up happier and more loyal.

LWM: What future products and services might you branch out into if any?

Userful's next phase of growth is entirely about partnerships and about helping others leverage this 10-to-1 advantage to deliver complete solutions to their customers. Over the next 12 months will see a host of solutions coming to market through our partners covering a range of verticals from call centers to cruise ships. Userful's focus will be on supporting our partners and making it easier and more profitable for them to do business with us.

LWM: What other technologies do see as complimentary to your own? Advances in hardware, Linux OS, or others?

Advances in Linux;s usability, performance, and compatibility have helped our business.

Modern desktop computers are already so vastly underutilized that advances in computer hardware aren't really a concern or factor for us. Your average desktop computer can support four people no problem Add a bit of extra RAM and you can up that to six or 10.

Any technology that helps drive or support desktop Linux adoption is complimentary to our business.

LWM What makes Userful unique compared to other solutions?

People often ask us how we compare with other virtualization technologies such as LTSP (thin client) and VMware. Userful's technology virtualizes the operating system's ability to support local user interface hardware. This approach achieves the main objectives of thin client, however, it does so with better performance at lower cost. With Userful's "zero client" approach, all user interface hardware is directly connected, this means it doesn't need to be compressed, sent out over the network, then decompressed by the thin client device before displaying it to the user. Userful's "zero client" approach delivers PC-like performance on streaming video and flash animations. It also actually reduces the number of computers required unlike the thin client, which still requires a low-powered computer at each terminal.

Userful and VMware solve entirely different problems so the comparison is purely academic but interesting nonetheless. VMware is the inverse of Userful. Both turn one computer into many, however, VMware allows a single user to work simultaneously on multiple operating system instances whereas Userful allows multiple users to work simultaneously using a single operating system instance.

More Stories By Mark R. Hinkle

Mark Hinkle is the Senior Director, Open Soure Solutions at Citrix. He also is along-time open source expert and advocate. He is a co-founder of both the Open Source Management Consortium and the Desktop Linux Consortium. He has served as Editor-in-Chief for both LinuxWorld Magazine and Enterprise Open Source Magazine. Hinkle is also the author of the book, "Windows to Linux Business Desktop Migration" (Thomson, 2006). His blog on open source, technology, and new media can be found at http://www.socializedsoftware.com.

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