Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Options on Budget Multi-user Computing

The internet shop is probably the most common business for internet-savvy technophiles with entrepreneurial pursuit. I kept away from it for so long because, whether you go for business-only internet access or cater to online gamers, you might as well have invested somewhere else given that the PC hardware depreciates quickly, new and better hardware can appear any time at lower cost, and setting up online gaming access is more of a gamble since players could always go for new and better games that you have to buy just to keep them coming back.

It all translates to intensive investment and cut-throat price competition with neighboring Internet shops. At the end of the day, practically all shops in a particular neighborhood, unless you're the only Internet shop in your area, will luckily just break even or lose.

My idea was to invest in only one PC hardware, and have thin client terminals that the internet shop customers will use for web surfing, chat, email or online gaming. For GNU/Linux-based systems, it's a no-brainer choice: Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP).

LTSP and Budget
The LTSP has made significant progress and currently via Diskless Workstations website sells Ubuntu-based and (surprise of all surprises!) HP-branded Windows-based thin client solutions. The catch though is that doing the math, I can't afford one thin-client terminal costing $250 to over $450 each.

Luckily, all hope isn't lost, I found Wyse and NComputing. I thought their solutions were more within my budget (with saving comes compromise and I prefer to NOT offer games in my planned internet shop), plus I found they have distributors in the Philippines, so no need to order abroad and wait for weeks to receive the package. Unfortunately, my experience with Wyse wasn't fruitful, I emailed them and they didn't reply back promptly, and the price they quoted me was also out of my reach. With NComputing, I was able to get in touch with their salesperson and the quote they gave me was affordable.

NComputing X550
I bought the NComputing X550 device two years ago for a planned internet cafe shop in my province, enabling my CPU to have five (5) thin client terminals for starters. I expected the demand for the internet shop to be great since our house is strategically located in the middle of schools in our area. It unfortunately was canned, my province has power interruption problem all the time while I still lack capital to procure a power generator and Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) to protect the whole computer system.

When I recently got me a new PC, with an AMD64 CPU and 8GB RAM, I'm very confident that I can at least try to use the NComputing X550 at home to allow simultaneous use of my PC. My sister bought an LCD monitor, keyboard and mouse, so we're all set to try how good the NComputing X550 claim is.

I initially tried to use Ubuntu 10.04.3 LTS 64-bit (the latest Ubuntu LTS version as of this writing) since my PC is built on AMD64, but it can't find the card and won't boot the X550. Using the resources from the NComputing website, it turns out that it requires a specific version of Ubuntu 10.04 LTS, as I already mentioned, Ubuntu LTS 10.04.3 is the latest, but NComputing requires 10.04.2 32-bit version instead, so I downloaded it.

The Service Pack Fiasco
For experimental purposes, I tried Windows XP with Service Pack 3, but this won't make the X550 run, made me wondering why (is the Service Pack to blame?).

While downloading the Ubuntu 10.04.2 32-bit ISO via torrent, for experimental purposes, I tried Windows 7 32-bit on the X550. Being the latest and the greatest Windows version as of this writing (Windows 8 is just around the corner if you believe Microsoft pundits), Windows 7 32-bit made the X550 work like a charm after installing vSpace for Windows 7 32-bit. However, when I tried applying the Windows 7 Service Pack 1, the X550 card won't work again (should I conclude that the Service Pack is the guilty party?). When I reinstalled Windows 7 32-bit, and didn't install the Service Pack 1, the NComputing X550 worked smoothly.

Following the steps provided for Ubuntu 10.04.2, after installing the latest version of vSpace for Ubuntu, the X550 worked like charm, enabling me simultaneously with everyone at home to use the computer with peace of mind (no more blaming Windows for viruses or other common Windows problems since we won't use it).

FAQ: Features and Quirks
I have verified that online Flash-based games also work, so Facebook-based games like Farmville and the like can still be played. Specific to NComputing X550, you can listen to audio and video like in Youtube, but it doesn't have provision for microphone so the like of Skype calls are not feasible. Yahoo and similar chat services are still alright.

There are also some strange behaviors I observed: in Windows 7, the users may sometimes grab same browser sessions even when they used different access credentials. In Ubuntu session, when I attach USB-based storage like portable hard drives or flash disks, sometimes, it appears on the desktop of other users and not in my desktop. Not sure if it's a hardware, software or connectivity issue, but the thin client terminal display sometimes goes blank then after a second or two, renders properly again in Windows 7 or Ubuntu (this could make any user go nuts!).

Memory Lost and Found
If you recall, the new PC I got is loaded with 8GB of RAM, and using 32-bit OS, be it Windows or Linux, is a waste of resource since it only sees at most a little over 3GB of RAM. I don't know about Windows 7 but with Ubuntu 10.04.2 32-bit, the solution to see the whole 8GB is just to install the Physical Address Extension (PAE) enabled version of the kernel. In our case, the Ubuntu 10.04.2 has 2.6.32-38 as the base kernel, so we just install PAE by simply installing the proper kernel (provided of course that you have admin access to the PC in question):

sudo apt-get install linux-image-2.6.32-28-generic-pae

Once we reboot with that PAE-enabled kernel, we enjoy the best of both 32-bit and 64-bit worlds, we get to use common application that are usually dependent on 32-bit libraries and we get to maximize RAM usage.

Ready to Roll
Pragmatically, we now have a computer system that will allow at most five (5) users to simultaneously use the computer, we're practically ready to roll-out the internet shop if desired, the only thing needed is an internet cafe management system; for Windows, I found TrueCafe one of the better options for this purpose, unfortunately for Linux, found little to no viable option for this as of this writing.

One concern I have is that it's advised by NComputing never to upgrade the Ubuntu kernel, otherwise, it will break the setup and we can't have multi-user access again, and this could render the security of the whole setup questionable in the long run.

I wish Linux components would be as security- focused as OpenBSD so I won't have this concern. Then again, I hope NComputing would allow access to documentation to empower open source developers to maximize the performance of their hardware with free and open source technology, not just a particular GNU/Linux distribution.

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