Diskless X Terminals

To act just as a display for programs that are running elsewhere does not require a great deal of physical resources; the idea of using legacy hardware just to do this is an interesting one.

We won't discuss this in any detail, but interest is growing in a thin-client approach to desktop computing using Linux.

In a true thin-client situation, the client machine uses network booting to get its kernel, mounts its directory tree entirely across the network from a server by the Network File System (NFS) or by a network block device (NBD), and runs programs on the server, with only the display taking place locally. In certain variations, some applications are executed locally.

The best-known method for doing this is the Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP) at www.ltsp.org. At present, LTSP is not included in the SUSE distributions. However, an LTSP version 5 implementation based on the Kiwi system image building tool is available as an openSUSE project. (See http://en.opensuse.org/LTSP.)

LTSP consists of a directory structure on the server that is exported by NFS or NBD to the clients and an adapted kernel. The clients boot by using either Intel's Preboot Execution Environment (PXE) or etherboot (that allows a network card to boot across the network either from a special boot floppy or from a bootrom added to the card). Almost all modern systems have network cards capable of PXE booting.

Installation and setup of LTSP is relatively easy, and LTSP has huge advantages. The hardware used for the clients can be machines that otherwise you would throw away, but the user experience will be similar to a new machine provided the server is powerful enough to support all the clients. No configuration is needed on the clients — if hardware fails, you can simply replace a client machine and everything will still work. All user files are, of course, on the server.

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