Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Rethinking Thin Clients

I've been tinkering with the Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP) over the last week or two and it's been changing my mind about thin clients, the low-powered computers that act as a terminal for a central, powerful computer.

The Linux distribution I use, Ubuntu, comes with the software built in. Getting LTSP set up took about an afternoon, and two messages to the support email list. The process is described here on Ubuntu's Wiki (which I've contributed to a little). But once done, my own moderately equipped Ubuntu PC (2.8GHz Celeron, 1GB RAM) could be used by three people simultaneously with good performance. I used an IBM Thinkpad and an HP Vectra as temporary clients.

The original idea of thin client computing, and the one most supporters still push, is that it's good for very large companies who want greater control over their users: Why give the cubicle dwellers real PCs that they'd only mess up anyway? But all that does is shift the cost. The companies have to manage several big servers with enough horsepower to run everyone's software and the clients aren't that much less expensive than full PCs. The two most expensive parts in your computer are the processor and the display, both of which are still needed by a thin client. So now you have two problems -- the cost of a big server room, and only slightly less pricey PCs. No thanks.

I think a better use is for home users. The most common computers you can buy cheaply now have more than enough umph to run handle several users simultaneously. Why not make use of all of those wasted cycles and let your kids surf the web or work on their homework at the same time you're checking your stock prices and reading email? Adding thin clients is easier for home users than just adding PCs to a home network -- there's only one hard drive to back up, for example, and one PC that needs protecting from viruses. You can even use your old clunker PCs as the clients.

Another good use for them would be in schools. Microsoft and its partners are ripping off many schools, preying on the ignorance of its administrators. Any of the computers at most schools (one per classroom, if they're lucky) can run at least two or three other thin clients. With a powerful PC, you could get something that looks like this, running Edubuntu, the version of Ubuntu aimed at students.

One big hurdle is that Windows is a lousy server for thin clients, compared with Unix-like systems such as Linux. But Linux takes too long to learn, especially for the busy school administrator or home user. It's going to be need to be much simpler.

Several years ago, companies like Oracle and Sun Microsystems were pushing thin clients as a Microsoft killer. They failed, utterly, of course. But I think that's because they were pitching it at the wrong crowd.

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