Linked by Thom Holwerda on Mon 8th May 2006 19:37 UTC
Hardware, Embedded Systems "Thin is in again. After years of false starts, so-called thin clients are gaining traction as IT departments look to cut costs and boost security. Dell, Intel and AMD are eyeing the space." eWeek takes a closer look at Thin Clients, including a set of pictures.
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My experience of thin-client computing
by spanner on Tue 9th May 2006 01:12 UTC
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I've just recently finished implementing a 500-user Citrix thin client system for a mid-sized UK company spread across 3 (soon to be 4) sites.

I modified an Ubuntu livecd (now more or less unnecessary as most of the required changes are now in Dapper) to network-boot (yay for PXE!) into the Citrix ICA client in fullscreen desktop mode. I wrote a simple but effective X autoconfiguration system in about 10 lines of bash script, which is the only real sticking point these days as far as hardware autodetection and configuration goes in Linux. I also added multiseat support (now very usable with 7.0) to my X autoconfiguration system with about another 5 lines of bash script, which means that up to 4 users can use a single desktop machine, each with their own keyboard, mouse, display and totally separate Windows desktop. Best of all, the users don't even know they're not running a local copy of Windows - it boots straight to a familiar Windows 2003/XP login screen, and I even modified the Ubuntu startup logo to look like that of XP, though with the company logo added.

With this system I can reuse all the old Dell Optiplexes knocking about in the company as thin clients, and barring a few extra PCI graphics cards and USB mice and keyboards, need not buy any more desktop hardware for years and years as I can reuse old desktop machines that were too slow to run XP locally and which would otherwise have been thrown away. The memory footprint of my thin-client system is only about 32MB and the CPU speed of the machine is irrelevant as all the processing happens on the Citrix servers, tucked away in the server rooms.

Future plans include addition of OpenMosix to the kernel that the clients boot, so I can have my own 400-processor supercomputer and do some meaty calculations (hopefully including the overnight financial analysis for management, which normally takes around 8 hours to complete on a dual Xeon server and has a habit of overrunning into the next working day)... cool huh?

Major advantages include extreme manageability (I only have 12 Windows 2003/Citrix servers plus associated infrastructure to really look after, the network-boot Linux side of things more or less looks after itself, and Citrix is very easy to manage and supports about 45-50 users per dual-Xeon server), vastly reduced remote support requirements (we've gone from requiring a full-time on-site support person for each site to a single day a week on-site at each of the remote sites), tiny costs for new desktop hardware, and best of all, massively improved user feedback, because very little goes wrong - it just works, and if something does go wrong it gets fixed quickly: there are only a handful of machines that need fixing, and they're all within 10 metres of my desk. Also I am able to remove the hard disks from the desktop machines, which significantly reduces the noise levels in the office and reduces their power consumption by about 30%.

The only downside really is that now everything is utterly dependent on the network: if we have network problems, then the whole company stops work. However, given that the company mostly uses client-server database apps, that was more-or-less true even when everyone had a local copy of Windows on their PC. Also there is an annoying bug in one of the Windows 2003 SP1 Terminal Services drivers that causes each Citrix server to spontaneously reboot about once a week, but I'm currently doing a new build of the Citrix servers based on Windows 2003 R2 that supposedly has this bug fixed.

Given that I can get a brand-new Dell diskless workstation plus 4 17 inch TFTs, 3 PCI gfx cards (there's already onboard Intel video), and 4 keyboards and mice for about 800 GBP and setting up the network-boot image was pretty straightforward, I have to wonder what the point of standalone thin clients is: they would have to be less than about 200 GBP per client device, including a 17 inch TFT, to be worthwhile to me. As yet I've not seen any that are remotely comparable, either in price, or in processing power (remember the Mosix cluster!) so they seem rather useless to me. I'd also lose the flexibility that I have with my current system (i.e. probably no Mosix, and no easy upgrades: I can just apt-get dist-upgrade to the next version of Ubuntu when it's ready and everything should just work... already done it on my dev system and it worked flawlessly)

I'm thinking of offering consulting services for this: it seems like such an amazingly good move that will save companies millions (and already is for my current company), but no-one is really offering it. Any takers?

Reply Score: 5

TechGeek Member since:

I would be interested in details about setting up the multiple desktops. I have not yet figured this part out or how to map a kyboard/mouse to a certain display.

Reply Parent Score: 1

twenex Member since:

"standalone thin client"?

Reply Parent Score: 1

ceekay Member since:

I work at an IT company that supports about 200 small businesses in the area. Our happiest customers (and the ones who have to call us the least) are thin client (often Wyse terminal) users who connect to a Citrix/terminal server.

Just yesterday I was doing maintenence on a server and found that most of the machiens in the office were old Win95 boxes with the clickety keyboards and big PS2 plugs. The great thing is- the users probably don't care. They have decent monitors, and the computers boot straight into the Citrix client and connect to the server.

Every time one of the old Win95 machines dies, we just replace it with a Wyse terminal and they are back up and running within the day.

It's definitely interesting to see how computer have gone from mainframe/dumb-terminal to PC to PC/server back to server/dumb-terminal- I guess thus the title of this article, "Thin Clients II: The Comeback"

Reply Parent Score: 1