Linux Server Based Computing & Terminal Server Options

Being an IT consultant I get to visit lots of companies and can’t help but notice any trends that are happening.

One of these trends is more and more Linux servers (and occasionally workstations) appearing in companies of all sizes. But what Linux options are available for Server Based Computing environments? Here I take a look at some of the options.

For several reasons (mainly expense but Linux buffs will also tell you stability, security and everything else) people have been switching the odd Windows server for one of the various flavors of Linux for several years now. Many companies are now totally Linux, and therefore must be faced with the same problems as Windows companies. Can thin clients be used, does a Terminal Server option even exist for Linux servers? I set myself a mission to find out:

The Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP)

This is free which is always a good start. Developed by the Linux community it seems to be very popular in schools throughout the world and basically, it allows thin clients to connect to Linux servers. Many of the Linux distributions include LTSP right out of the box now. Thin clients or PCs are set to boot from the LTSP server. The downside of this means that you’re not going to be able to do this remotely, across the web etc.

NoMachine

This is more like the commercial Terminal Services/Citrix package that Windows users are used to. It allows connection to Linux servers by IP as do MIcrosoft RDP or Citrix ICA clients. The client used in this case is NoMachines own (more on that later) and you can also publish applications which run seamlessley from Linux, Windows, Mac, some PDA clients and load balancing is included. The NX web companion is a java applet and plugin that allows you to have single click access to published applications on the NoMachine server. You can run no machine free of charge for two users and then after that you pay. The full pricing can be found here.

If you want to try it yourself then try the NoMachine Test Drive. There is no downside to the NoMachine software itself, the downside is that alot of Linux applications aren’t Terminal Server compatible yet and as alot of them are open source it means waiting until someone gets the urge to make them compatible!

FreeNX and 2x Terminal Server

If you liked the sound of NoMachine then you will probably like these two. The FreeNX project is using the GPL licensed NX technology developed by NoMachine to create a Free Software version of an NX server, and 2x Terminal Server is also based on this and free too. It’s basically NoMachine but free! (Did I mention it’s free?) NoMachine does of course have full time developers working on their product so it is more advanced than these two but it’s still perfectly usable. I’ve been using the 2x version for some time and found it to be quick and reliable. The client used for connection by the way is the free NoMachine client although 2x have their own version of this which can be downloaded from their website.

The NoMachine client

The NoMachine (NX) client is great. This is the thing I was most impressed with. It’s secure and very, very quick (it’s rumored to be quicker than RDP/ICA and certainly seems that way). It works by compressing the X protocol but also caching frequently used data, there are plenty of in-depth articles about exactly how it works. It can even be used to connect to Windows servers (although not in application mode) and XP desktops.

Win4Lin

There’s one more product I feel I should mention and that’s Win4Lin. This allows you to provide a Windows-based desktop but from a Linux server! It’s ideal for companies who have made the move to Linux but there’s still the odd application they need that has to run on Windows. Of course, you still need the XP license and it’s not available for Vista yet but if you’re determined to go Linux all the way then this could help you on your way.

Of course, there’s a lot more that needs to be looked at before you decide to “go Linux”. The applications you run, the cost of support staff, how will it all integrate with companies or customers outside your environment etc but hopefully this gives us “Windows people” an idea of what’s available in Linux for SBC environments.