Zero-client Linux desktop virtualization launched

A Canadian company is claiming the title of the first to release Linux-based desktop virtualization software that runs on Ethernet-attached “true zero” clients.

Upping the ante in a market seeking the cheapest virtualization through the thinnest hardware, Calgary-based Userful Corp. says MultiSeat v5 can reduce the cost of thin-client computing by half by using an open-source platform. Historically bought mostly by frugal public institutions such as libraries and schools, the new version of the product will have broader appeal to the private sector due to the greater range over which clients can be deployed, said Alan McNaughton, vice-president and general manager of Userful.

Hardware technology to link virtualized zero clients via Ethernet didn’t exist until recently, he said; they had to be connected by USB and grouped in local clusters. “That worked well for us in libraries and in educational settings that we were selling in,” said McNaughton, “and so, the big thing for us is that with breaking that distance limitation by having these Ethernet attached, [it] means that they can be spread around an office or factory floor.”

McNaughton added that the Linux-based platform is becoming more of a feasible option to enterprises as Web-based applications have started to proliferate. With virtualization and cloud computing becoming more popular, he said, users are starting to care less and less about what operating system or browsers they use.

Meanwhile, the people who do care — enterprises who have to pay for the hardware and software — can realize costs savings by avoiding licensing fees, he said. These savings and the now-familiar functionality of Linux are starting to win over converts.

“I don’t think anybody sets out saying, ‘gee, I want Linux,” McNaughton said. “I think somehow they get exposed to it and realize, you know, this isn’t very different at all. And obviously, it’s a whole lot cheaper.

“The whole the operating system becoming less and less relevant, so why not go for the one that’s free?”

Chris Wolf, research vice-president at Gartner Inc., said as it stands now, there is quite a small market for Linux platforms in enterprises, virtualized or not. Most of the clients he deals with, he added, couldn’t adopt a Linux-only virtual desktop environment because they’re so heavily dependent on Windows-based applications.

“There’s such a history and legacy with Windows applications that the movement to a Linux desktop is not always something that is practical,” Wolf said. Libraries and schools, on the other hand, are sometimes better suited to Linux thin-client deployments because they only require a narrow range of applications, he said.

In these cases, cost savings can be the deciding factor, a particular concern for poorer developing countries that need to purchase the cheapest hardware and software.

“I’m usually able to, say, set up a classroom in one of these remote countries for a fraction of the price of what it would cost with a traditional Windows dedicated PC environment,” he said.

McNaughton said Userful does, in fact, provide its software to public institutions in the “BRIC” countries (Brazil, India and China). For example, the company reported that the Brazilian Ministry of Education saved 60 per cent on up-front costs and 80 per cent in yearly power savings by using MultiSeat.

Closer to home, the United Counties of Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry, whose county seat is Cornwall, Ont., is using the earlier USB-connected version of MultiSeat in all of its branches to give their patrons access to a Web browser, word processing and other basic tools. The virtualized system can handle up to four stations per system, said Todd Underwood, network administrator for the counties.

Underwood said MultiSeat 5, with its Ethernet capability, would make his life easier. “Much easier,” he said. “And the thing is, using USB…the back of your station is filled with USB ports and you have to daisy-chain them together.”

Besides the mess of wires, this forces the library to concentrate all their terminals in one area, he added.

Plus, the difference between thin and zero can be quite substantial. As clients become leaner and cheaper, and it becomes possible to virtualize more and more machines (MultiSeat 5 can create 20 virtual machines running on one system), costs will plummet, Underwood said.

“Our last multi-seat system that we set up in one of our branches, I believe to replace all the hardware it cost about $10,000 — and that was for eight seats. So, this would definitely be that much cheaper.”

MultiSeat is also running in places like the Vancouver Island Regional Library and the Windsor Public Library, McNaughton said. These institutions will be able keep their older USB-attached terminals running, but can now add new ones at longer distances, he said.

McNaughton said MultiSeat 5 will run on “any high-performance workstation” attached to zero clients such as those offered by HP and Viewsonic (HP is a reseller for Userful; Viewsonic is an OEM partner). Userful charges $59 a seat.

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