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So about those thin clients...

Thin clients...To LTSP or not to LTSP.
Written by Christopher Dawson on

I'm writing this post from my new and now somewhat infamous laptop. More importantly, I'm connected to my LAN wirelessly under Linux.  Whoo Hoo!  After lots of fussing with ndiswrapper and SUSE this weekend, I pretty well hosed the networking portion of my SUSE install.  I have no doubt that someone with more time, patience, and Linux wherewithal could have resurrected my network resources, but I decided to just try another distro.  Since I had a desktop running with Ubuntu's previous version (Dapper Drake) and had met with some limited success with the various 'buntu's in class (Ubuntu, Kubuntu, and Edubuntu), I decided to give Ubuntu's latest and greatest a shot.  The recently released "Edgy Eft" incarnation even purported native support for my wireless card and, as has been pointed out before, the live CD install is a no-brainer.

So 25 minutes later, and after a few hours of searching for the WiFi application that would let Ubuntu use my wireless card (it recognized the card right away and even found my access point, but took KWifiManager and a few weird hiccups to actually start surfing), I was up and running.  Dual booting still worked like a charm, the install resized and managed partitions nicely, etc., etc., etc.  Great, so I'm an Ubuntu convert now.  I feel like Joe Lieberman.  What does this have to do with thin clients?  Most importantly, Edubuntu is a project that implements Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP) in Ubuntu and bundles a bunch of educational software.  So if Ubuntu is incredibly spiffy, it would follow that Edubuntu would be a mature LTSP implementation worthy of consideration.

Frankly, I've been giving thin clients a lot of thought lately anyway.  Marc Wagner responded to one of my posts recently noting that:

"In most settings terminal servers are poor substitutes for functioning workstations. You get to use older client hardware but at the expense of needing more robust server hardware and consuming already over-taxed network bandwidth to deliver cycles to the terminal server. Only a few vertical applicatons are suitable for terminal servers. IMO, they don't belong in education."

Although Marc and I usually agree in a lot of areas, I certainly find that maintaining countless aging PCs holds far less allure than managing application deployment, accounts, etc., on a single terminal server.  Windows Terminal Services (and/or Citrix Presentation Server ) offers a robust, quick interface that works well on a variety of thin and hybrid clients.  The user experience is about as close to Windows as you can get and, if your server hardware and bandwidth are up to snuff, users can run Windows and Windows apps on hardware that could never have run XP effectively.  As an added bonus, users of non-Windows operating systems can easily access Windows applications through a terminal window.  I'm actually running reports on my student information system (usable only under Internet Explorer) in a terminal window while I write this post in Firefox under Ubuntu.  Sweet.  This was a particular sticking point as we began to evaluate new student information systems; many of the client-server variety are Windows-centric.  A solid Terminal Services implementation makes the idea of platform far less relevant.

So back to Edubuntu.  Because, robust or not, academic discounts applied or not, Terminal Services requires a per client license (per user or per device) and these add up, even considering the potential for cost savings represented by thin-client computing.  Edubuntu (and the other LTSP implementations) of course, have no such costs.  Which returns us to a pretty familiar debate.  Do you understand Linux in general and LTSP in particular well enough to run production labs under this OS?  More importantly, can your users tolerate (or be educated to tolerate) an interface that isn't Windows (or Mac)?  Finally, can you do away with any non-Windows applications (at least in your computer labs)?  If you answered no to any of these questions, then Windows/Citrix start looking like the only game in town.

Terminal services obviously aren't a solution for every situation, regardless of the OS.  But it's hard to argue against thin-client setups where processing and graphics needs are modest (e.g., an average K-12 computer lab); if Edubuntu ends up working as flawlessly for LTSP as Ubuntu does on my new laptop, its going to be increasingly difficult to argue for a Windows solution.

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