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8/13/2008
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Linux Thin Clients: A Big Idea For Small Business?

Are endless cycles of PC "upgrades" downgrading your company's bottom line? Maybe it's time to revisit an IT concept that has never been a very big hit with small-business owners -- but whose time, perhaps, has finally arrived

Are endless cycles of PC "upgrades" downgrading your company's bottom line? Maybe it's time to revisit an IT concept that has never been a very big hit with small-business owners -- but whose time, perhaps, has finally arrived Thin-client computing is a concept that carries some heavy baggage. It makes some folks think about 1970s-era "dumb" terminals that offered users the IT equivalent of a daily trip to the DMV. Others recall Larry Ellison's and Scott McNealy's attempts to bite Microsoft in the kneecaps by pushing Java-powered thin clients as an alternative to Windows.

It's safe to say that anyone who watched this fleet of lead balloons crater the tech landscape over the years was less than impressed. But don't let so-so execution sour you on a fundamentally sound concept.

BeginLinux.com has published an outstanding guide to setting up a Linux-based terminal server that gives desktop users an attractive mix of performance, flexibility, and functionality. It starts with an overview of how the technology, based on contributions from the Linux Terminal Server Project, works, along with a summary of both the advantages and disadvantages such a system might offer.

Here's the quick version: Linux thin clients aren't sliver bullets. But they're a lot closer to that end of the IT spectrum than they are to your father's VT100.

If you decide to take the plunge, or at least try a proof-of-concept Linux terminal server setup, the guide includes detailed instructions for setting up LTSP on Ubuntu 8.04, which automatically handles a lot of the basic configuration tasks. Finally, it includes detailed network configuration instructions and even a comprehensive list of hardware you'll need to get a basic LTSP client-server network up and running.

Like most "free" (as in beer) software initiatives, the costs involved with supporting, and maintaining a Linux terminal server are very real. In the long run, those costs may or may not beat the cost of sticking with a traditional desktop PC infrastructure.

There is no denying, however, that a thin-client network has almost unlimited potential when it comes to taking a bite out of your company's PC hardware upgrade costs. As the BeginLinux guide points out, the up-front cost for a Linux-based thin clients are pretty much as low as you want them to be: Hardware that would groan under the weight of Windows 98 might tool along quite gracefully in a thin-client role.

Keep in mind that driver support for a Linux thin client is about as problematic as driver support for a can opener. Thin clients are also a lot less power-hungry, which means they run quite a bit cooler than a typical desktop space heater.

Let's face it: The upgrade treadmill won't stop -- and probably won't even slow down -- until the companies being run ragged decide to step off and pull the plug. Linux-based thin clients at least show that it's possible to make this leap without stumbling back into the desktop Dark Ages.

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