TECH TALK: Server-based Computing: My Linux Thin Client

For the past two weeks, I have been using a Linux-based Thin Client as my desktop computer. All my files and mails are stored on the server. The only software my desktop resides on a floppy which has the necessary instructions to boot the system up. When my desktop boots up, it first fetches the Linux kernel from the server and then the applications. Instead of Outlook, Microsoft Office and Internet Explorer, my world now consists of Evolution, Open Office and Mozilla. The total cost of the applications: zero.

It is not that I have not had to use MS-Windows I have done so once. This was when I had to send a document to a friend. He uses MS-Word, so I had to use MS-Word to check and make sure that the document I had created using Open Office looked okay under MS-Word. (It did.)

I have been a Windows user for many years. There are still times when I will type up keyboard shortcuts I know for Windows applications on the Linux Thin Client and get some unexpected results. But other than that, it has been a smooth transition. I have been able to migrate my mails of the last few years from Outlook at an IMAP account on the Mail Server. Even the cookies and bookmarks from Internet Explorer were moved easily to Mozilla, thus ensuring that I didnt have to hunt around for the passwords to access some sites where I had registered (and had forgotten the login and password!)

I am using a 3-year-old notebook as my desktop. So far, I was using MS-Windows installed on it along with the applications which resided on the local hard disk (which had, hold your breath, all of 4 GB in disk space!) In fact, the computers age and configuration do not matter I could have used an old Pentium (or even a 486) with 16 MB memory and the performance would have been just the same.

In fact, that was one of the attractions that led me to try out the Linux Thin Client option. Not only could I use an old, inexpensive computer as my desktop, but I could also bring down the cost of software. In the event that my desktop stopped working, I could replace it with another one just as quickly, knowing fully well that since all my data and the applications that I needed were on the server, there would be no loss of data and the downtime would be minimal.

Whats interesting here is not just the Linux Thin Client solution, but the fact that this is a return to computings roots: that of host-based (or server-based) computing. In a way, I am going back to how computing was done a few decades ago with dumb terminals connected to powerful mainframes. As I will elaborate in the coming columns, there are many recent developments which will make Server-based computing a powerful alternative to the Windows-based Thick Desktops of today.

My perspective, as usual, will be how it can make a difference to the emerging markets of the world. Server-based computing goes by the name of Grid Computing in the developed markets of the world. The two have the same basic concepts but are still quite different in the solutions that they offer. And yet, the underlying theme driving both is the same: making computing a utility for the mass market.

Tomorrow: A Brief History of Computing

Published by

Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.