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Thinning down the Linux desktop

A Linux thin-client workstations, terminal-server combination is giving enterprises something to consider on the desktop.

SAN DIEGO -- While many Linux vendors focus on creating fancy, full-featured desktops to compete with Windows, some experts assert that a better approach for companies is to think thin.

By implementing thin-client workstations along with terminal servers, rather than fat client desktops rich in applications, enterprises stand to cut costs, improve employee productivity and raise their level of security, experts said last week at the second annual Desktop Linux Summit.

Administrators would be freed to concentrate on securing servers, rather than "running around between desktops.
Bernd Kretschmer

"The technology is going back -- there is a generalized movement toward a centralized server," says Louis Nauges, president of a new Paris-based company called Microcost. That's -cost, not -soft -- and as the company's name implies, its goal is to reduce the total cost of ownership (TCO) companies pay for proprietary technology by migrating them to open source. He says that his solution could cost corporations five to 10 times less than Microsoft, including hardware and support costs.

Nauges' concept is simple: Eliminate any application on the desktop that is unnecessary and move it to the server. Centralize management of terminal servers instead of managing desktops and you will increase security and reduce downtime.

Barebones desktops

The desktop would contain almost nothing, he said. "And I'm not even sure that in the next three to five years, Office or an Office-like solution, will be needed." For a mobile device, he proposed that more applications might need to be installed for situations in which the network would be out of reach.

Bernd Kretschmer, co-author of a German-language book, "Linux-Terminal Server," said that the terminal server idea is neither new nor unique to Linux use. There are no licensing costs and [Linux servers] need less administration than Windows terminal servers, he said. "Administrators would be freed to concentrate on securing servers, rather than "running around between desktops."

The idea has really caught on in Germany, especially where budgets are limited, Kretschmer said. The German ministry of the interior and the ministry of justice have tried it out. The town of Schwabisch Hall, already using Linux desktops and servers, is considering a thin-client implementation. The largest life insurance company in Germany is using thing clients to access its 390 mainframe. The police of Lower Saxony also use thin clients to access police records.

Thin implementations have also taken hold in the United States. One of its advocates is CDR W. Stevenson Bowman, who is the officer in charge of the San Diego detachment of SPAWAR, the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center in Norfolk, Va. Bowman was involved with a thin-client implementation at the data center of the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) in San Diego, where they were able to eliminate their help desk completely.

"The whole idea was to get rid of all the thick clients and the cost associated with them," Bowman said. They moved from Wintel PCs to Solaris running on a Citrix server, although Bowman pointed out that the same effect could have been achieved using Linux. The agency first went from seven to two support personnel, then eliminated them completely.

Bowman feels that the arrangement is more a focus on server-centric computing rather than a particular operating system, and that you can use a mixed environment, but that Linux is well suited to the arrangement. "When you can pull out all the pieces that you don't need, lock it down so that it's absolutely secure, close all the ports, perfect!" Computers ought to be more like telephones, where they just work without needing to be programmed, he said.

Help desks, security woes begone

Enterprises can also elminated large help desk staffs, but only when users are given adequate training, and when applications become easier for them to use. "For now, things like OpenOffice are not easier in their structure than Microsoft Office products. They only are equivalent in functionality, but they are not easy -- not at all."

Nuages also said companies may expect some backlash from users if a fully functioning desktop is eliminated. Thin clients, or "company computers" simplify management. "What I will have is a machine that does what it is supposed to do, nothing more and nothing less, but it does it very well," he said. Thin clients can be locked down, eliminating inadvertent virus downloads, for example.

"Users complained that they couldn't do what they wanted anymore, which exactly what we wanted, from a business perspective," Bowman said. "It's too expensive to do all that neat stuff and let everyone be cowboys anymore, at least in the business world."

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