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Thin Clients in the Holy Land

Here's an idea: With a network of Nivos, a few extra monitors, keyboards, and a modest PC to act as a server, a whole classroom of kids can work on a whole slew of software.

I love Linux User Groups (LUGs). For those of us that live on the 10,000 foot level in corporate IT or work in technology services firms and spend less and less time in front of hardware and the console, LUGs are an excellent way of learning about what is being used in the trenches, and how regular everyday people are using Linux to solve everyday and creative problems.

One thing I’ve learned about LUG members is that they are frugal as hell — most of these guys don’t have multi-million-dollar IT budgets or even budgets in the thousands. They keep their PCs for years at a time, and some of them are genuine system pack rats and dumpster divers, who will build Mad Max-style boxes or “Frankenputers” using whatever parts come their way.

One PC packrat I met at a recent NYLUG meeting is named Ghassan, an Israeli-born Palestinian academician who works at a well-known New York City-based university. He asked me for advice how one might best set up labs in the Holy Land for Palestinian and Israeli children (Jews and Muslims) so they can collaborate on educational and cross-cultural projects to promote peace and understanding.

And he wants to do it using re-purposed, outdated machines what you and I might consider to be junk: four- and five- and seven-year-old Pentiums that would have problems running even the latest Linux distros, let alone Windows XP. If this wasn’t a calling from a Higher Authority to perform my quarterly mitzvah and stack a few points on the Karma Airlines frequent flyer’s program, I don’t know what is.

My first reaction, other than, “How can I help this guy?” was to think about what Open Source technologies he had at his disposal. Certainly, Edubuntu with its built in LTSP server, combined with a new $500 Taipei special with two Ethernet ports, a $50 Ethernet switch, some Cat-5 and a dozen of those outdated PCs and monitors with the hard drives torn out and PXE boot turned on, along with a SOHO router and cheap broadband would get him off the ground. That’s what we’re planning to do as the prototype in New Jersey, where we can test it out on Jewish and Muslim kids at a local community center.

But we need to scale much beyond some suburban town in New Jersey. If we want to do this all over Israel and in the Palestinian territories, we’re gonna need a much more inexpensive solution unless we get a ton of donated equipment. And while donated garbage PCs are certainly welcome, they do have the disadvantage of being power-hungry and need to be maintained or replaced: they have maintenance overhead. Additionally, not everyone can hook up a switched Ethernet network, or even hook into SOHO broadband via cable or DSL. Although Israel itself is a very modern country, there are parts of the Palestinian territories where the fastest net access is still dialup, or 56K GSM cellular data if you are lucky.

So I also searched around and found more Thin Client stuff. I looked of course at the usual suspects, such as DisklessWorkstations.com and Symbio.com, who sell $200 LTSP terminals. That’s great for corps, but that’s gonna blow our budget even for our test LAN. But then I remembered Ndiyo.

Based in the UK, and founded by Quentin Stafford-Fraser, a computer scientist who worked on the VNC project, their aim is to create a cigarette pack-sized device, dubbed the Nivo, that is completely solid-state and diskless, and connects to an Ethernet LAN and a mouse, keyboard and monitor. They even have one that can use USB as the network interface thru a USB hub instead of Ethernet, for smaller five or six station networks. It uses an embedded thin remote console protocol combined with a session manager which can run any Linux desktop GUI on it.

With a network of Nivos, a few extra monitors, keyboards, and a modest PC to act as a server, a whole classroom of kids can work on a whole slew of software. They’ve even done field tests in third-world nations with just a cell phone as the Internet link, and it worked amazingly well — you can see a video on the Ndiyo site and see for yourself. With economies of scale and manufacturing, the target price of a Nivo device is slated to be around $50, so you could even build this into any PC monitor for marginal added cost, say for an additional $25-$30.

What do basic 15-inch LCD screens cost now, $120-$140 wholesale? And with OLED technology, that’s likely to drop in half within the next two years. Unfortunately, right now, because of limited production runs and limited funding, the development versions of the Nivos cost $400 apiece. So it will be a few years yet before we can think about deploying them abroad, or even in Jersey. The LTSP Mad Max configurations will have to suffice, for the time being.

I keep thinking of the underpowered OLPC XO and what kids in 3rd world nations and in under funded inner-city schools in our own country could do with a full-blown, Open Source desktop OS. Sure, the XO is a good idea, and I am sure lots of kids will benefit from it– but I have to think all those $200 donations could have been better spent on getting real computing in the hands of the masses instead, using proven off-the-shelf and sensible technology instead of reinventing the wheel.

A dozen Nivos in every classroom. Can we make that a reality? Please?

Comments on "Thin Clients in the Holy Land"

mbejerano

The place is called “Israel” and has been so named since 1948.

ijm51

Have you looked at http://www.dataevolution.com/ they produce the DECtop, maybe this product would help you get started today rather than two years time? In the mean time thank you for pointing out Nivos I am off to investigate:-)

choup

Two points:

One, if the pricing per unit is anything close to what they state on their Cambridge Visual Networks web page, the Starter Kit retails at £1499 +VAT, seems to be very high given the current conversion rate. This is much higher than the price of ~$50 each noted in your article. There are much cheaper alternatives.

Second, the response by mbejerano; I believe the country Israel was founded in ~2000 BC, give or take a few years. Read Holy Bible KJV to get the whole story in detail…

choup

One other note. Thank you for the article as is informative and opens up several additional options for this client solutions.

jorgerivera

Well, the Starter Kit that retails at £1499 +VAT is a 5-unit kit. which is about £300 +VAT, say, about $600 a unit, for the first 5-unit kit you buy and £499 +VAT for owners, which would become about $200 per unit. The article says about $400.

If they are truly not at mass production, it is certainly possible to get to $50 each when they build in big quantities.

macbruins

May I suggest NComputing? http://www.ncomputing.com. Several models are already in full production. You can order them on the net (try pricegraber.com) for about $200. NComputing has customers world wide in many market segments. Disclosure: I work at NComputing.

nikita2974

Put as many ideas/options out there, that’s good. Of course a very simple & cheap solution imo is to use old machines, breath new life into them via Damn Small or Puppy Linux.

Otherwise, there are myriad full desktop solutions 200-300$, and thin clients >$200 by Icop and Norhtec, to name a few…

http://www.norhtec.com/

http://www.icoptech.com/ebox-pc/

jasonperlow

NComputing doesn’t have a product that is a good Linux solution yet, its designed primarily for Windows systems. They expect to have a Linux-compatible product by 4Q 2008.

jasonperlow

In regards to Cambridge and Ndiyo, they are nowhere near the capability to mass produce yet, so we have not seen economies of scale. There is certainly nothing in a Ndiyo that is so sophisticated that it would not be as cheap as say, an NComputing device, once they sign up enough manufacturers to license it.

As to “Biblical” definitions of the country of Israel, that’s a lot more complicated. :)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_ancient_Israel_and_Judah

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Levant_830.svg

For many, many years there was no “Country” of Israel, even in Biblical times. Biblical “Israel” actually only inhabited the northern part of the geographic region which is the State of Israel controls today. Much like medieval Europe and ancient Greece throughout the biblical period there were a number of city states, such as Jerusalem (Judah) where Israelite and Semetic tribes resided. You also had the Caananites (Phoenicians) and the Philistines (of which the modern word “Palestine” and “Palestinian” derives from), and Edom, all living in the area which we call “Israel” and the Palestinian controlled territories today.

rakan21

Damn this is about helping both sides and you want to deny the fact one is in pain and needs help. Remember Linux is a community of sharing and where all are treated equal.

WTF Dude?

jcschweitzer

The nice thing about LTSP is how well it scales. With a solid desktop you can support a classroom with 15-30 clients. With a couple of servers clustered together you can support 200-300 clients in a school fairly easily. Atlanta Public Schools had IBM (ironically using HP thin clients) do more half the district with Red Hat based LTSP, all centrally managed by one or two techs. (45 schools, 200 plus servers, 12000 clients. I was involved but I’m proud of it not selling it) In a slightly different setup, Revolution Linux did a school district in Quebec with the Suse based LTSP, and contributed back a lot of improvements. With a strong WAN they were able to put all the servers in a central datacenter. Great design and worth looking at.

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