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Hot Topic: Linux thin clients

Sep 30, 2004 — by LinuxDevices Staff — from the LinuxDevices Archive — 14 views

Linux based thin clients are surging in popularity, buoyed by advances in embedded Linux and advances in network computing technology. This Hot Topic reading list provides a brief overview of thin client technologies, summarizes recent news related to Linux thin clients, introduces our brand new Quick Reference Guide to thin client products that run embedded Linux, and provides a reading list… for further study.

What's a thin client?

Thin clients — also known as diskless workstations, network computers, and network computing appliances — are simple, robust embedded systems that use various networking protocols to enable local users to run applications on powerful remote servers. Since they are embedded, often solid-state systems (no moving parts), thin clients are said to require less maintenance and enjoy a longer usable lifespan than traditional “fat” clients, or PC desktops.

The most commonly used protocols include:

  • X — X, the basic Windowing system used on most Unix and Linux systems, and also Secure X, have been widely used in “x-terminals” or “xterms” practically ever since Unix time began. Supports cross-platform hosting of single applications.
  • ICA (independent computing architecture) — developed by Citrix and brought to Linux in the mid-90s by Igel LLC (now known as SmartFlex), ICA is highly scalable and allows remote cross-platform hosting of single applications or complete desktops.
  • RDP (remote desktop protocol) — Microsoft's remote access technology for remotely hosting complete desktops. Microsoft's protocol for remotely hosting single applications is called Microsoft Terminal Server (formerly codenamed Hydra).

Additionally, some thin clients use vnc (virtual network computer), a cross-platform system for remote desktop access; AIP (adaptive Internet protocol), a Tarantella protocol for running applications inside Web browsers, and others.

Thin is (increasingly) in

Thin client terminals and systems have been around for decades, and Linux terminals have been around almost as long as Linux. Thin clients were even the focus of a brief computing craze in the late 90s, when IBM, Oracle, and Sun all launched ambitious “network computer” initiatives. The fad was shortlived, however, as Sun employees reportedly began bringing their laptops to work, and using their company-issue surplus SunRay thin clients (that no one was buying) as doorstops, while Oracle's New Internet Computer (NIC) spinoff died a quiet death in June of 2003.

A year later, though, thin is back in again, however. IBM, Novell, HP, and Red Hat have all been talking up Linux-based thin clients. Thin client marketshare leader Wyse has redoubled its Linux efforts. And, the Linux thin-client pioneers like SmartFlex and Neoware haven't been idle, either. Even Microsoft has joined in; see this recent whitepaper for an outline of its thin client strategy.

It's difficult to pinpoint exactly where the current buzz about Linux thin clients began, but let's start arbitrarily with a study commissioned by Red Hat in May from research firm IDC. Entitled Linux and Open Source Software as a Desktop Platform, the study predicted that Linux would finally achieve success on the corporate desktop in the form of a thin-client OS for “transactional workers,” such as call center workers. At about the same time (May, 2004), Red Hat announced an ambitious “devices to desktops” initiative that, in partnership with embedded systems expert Wind River, would push a single Linux operating system to both thin clients and the servers that host their applications.

In some ways, Red Hat's sudden interest in thin clients seemed like a reaction to Novell's acquisition of SuSE in November of 2003, which Novell touted as bringing it “desktop-to-server Linux solutions.” Our in-depth interview with Red Hat's embedded chief James Prasad sheds more light on Red Hat's thin-client and overall embedded strategy.

IBM quickly threw its marketing weight behind Linux thin clients, issuing a press release days after the IDC study was released. For its part, IBM predicted a larger role for Linux-based thin clients in the enterprise. IBM's server-centric computing products include middleware that can extend enterprise applications to shop floor terminals, PDAs, thin clients — essentially any device running any platform that supports a Web browser, the company claims.

HP, too, got behind Linux thin clients in a big way early this year, announcing in January that it would support Linux Terminal Server Project software on its line of diskless workstations — and by the way, that it ranked first among Linux servers according IDC. A few months later, HP announced a partnership with Novell to bring SuSE Linux to its diskless workstations as well.

Wyse, named the top thin client vendor for seven years running by IDC, with an estimated 40 percent of the overall market, redoubled its efforts to get behind Linux thin clients this year. The company, which had dabbled in Linux thin clients since 2002, responded to what it called high demand for Linux thin clients by revising its “Wyse-enhanced Linux” thin client OS in June. Three months later, Wyse debuted its new “V6” thin-client OS, based on a 2.6 series Linux kernel. At the same time, Wyse also launched the petit new Linux-based Winterm 5150SE and announced it had joined the OSDL.

While Wyse rushed to react to high demand for Linux thin clients, companies with more established Linux thin client business saw rapid growth. Neoware was named the eighth-fastest growing company in the US by Fortune Magazine, and was named the third-fastest growing electronics company by Reed Business Research and Electronic Business magazine. (Contradictorily, Neoware was also named the 18th fastest growing tech company in the Delaware Valley by Deloitte.) Neoware made news this year by partnering with Via on two inexpensive Linux thin clients that it launched in April. And, the company used some of its fast-growing revenues to acquire a mainframe terminal emulator business.

Outside the US, chip giant AMD partnered with Chinese semiconductor house BLX IC Design Corp on a Computing Client Development Center in Beijing, China that will focus on thin-client, mobile client, and access/networking applications. The partnership has already yeilded two thin client reference designs that run Linux. AMD also released its own thin-client reference design, based on a Geode GX 533, in June.

Finally, no list of thin client Linux news would be complete without mentioning Symbio, a scrappy New York-based startup that in May called foul on HP and Dell for their attempts to fund PC “recycling” programs, reasoning that the computing giants stood to sell more new PCs and thin clients if older PCs — which Symbio specializes in redeploying as diskless workstations — were removed from circulation. HP's support for PC recycling came just months after it had launched a high-profile thin-client line.

Introducing . . . the Linux Thin Client Quick Reference Guide

Now that you're caught up on recent Linux thin client news, why not take a look at thin clients on the market today that run embedded Linux? Read our “Linux thin client Quick Reference Guide,” a continually updated guide to existing thin client products based on embedded Linux software platforms . . .

Linux thin client Quick Reference Guide

Linux Thin Client Reading List

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