Interview: Hans L. Knobloch of IGEL

A talk with the head of the company that invented the thin client.

Hans L. Knobloch is President and CEO of IGEL LLC (http://www.igelusa.com/) and owns a 10 percent interest in the company. He was born in Germany and moved to the U.S. in 1993 to head up IGEL, founded in 1992. He holds an engineering degree in Computer Science and a degree in Physics and Electronics. Before moving to the U.S., he was VP of Germany's second largest PC network and UNIX support company. He also owned a consulting company which specialized in small business computing. I interviewed him via e-mail in mid-May.

Margie: When did you start up IGEL? Tell us a bit of the company's history.

Hans: The company was founded in October of 1992 by the same partners who owned and still partially own IGEL GmbH (http://www.igel.com/) in Germany. IGEL started out as a distributor for a SCO UNIX Multi-Console Solution. In 1992, IGEL realized the limitations of this technology and developed the first character-based Ethernet TCP/IP terminal. The product, Etherminal 2C, was released in 1993. The successors of Etherminal 2C, Etherminal C and N are still selling today, creating a substantial part of IGEL's revenue. In 1993 IGEL developed the first (Flash-) Linux-based workstation, Etherminal 3X. IGEL actually invented the thin-client concept. This product had the same concept and basic functionality of our current Etherminal thin-client product line. In 1996, IGEL developed the Linux boot driver to boot Linux from an M-System's DiskOnChip (DOC) Flash Memory. The driver has been released under the GPL to the Linux community and can be downloaded from M-System's server.

IGEL developed a compression technology to compress a complete Linux system, including Netscape Communicator, into as little flash memory as possible. This resulted in IGEL's first commercially available thin client, which was released in 1998. In mid-1998, IGEL added support for the Citrix Metaframe. RDP support for the Microsoft Terminal Server will be available sometime in July.

The next and final step was the development of a read-only flash Linux file system. The development of these core technologies resulted in a new Linux-based embedded OS which is named IGEL JNT. IGEL JNT, besides being the OS for IGEL's thin clients, is available to OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) for licensing. JNT is used for TV Internet set-top boxes, OEM thin clients, network appliances, Linux/UNIX workstations and embedded computer systems for industrial and residential applications.

In 1999, IGEL released a JNT system builder kit which again can be licensed by OEMs, allowing them to develop their own embedded Linux devices or modify our thin clients to accommodate the OEM's proprietary application. IGEL, of course, does not charge any licensing fees for the actual Linux part, only for the compression technology, the read-only file system and the system builder kit.

Currently established OEM partnerships include Siemens, Schneider Cybermind, VxL and Mercedes Chrysler. With over 240,000 JNT units sold within the last 12 months, IGEL is becoming the leader in thin-client computing.

In 1998, IGEL GmbH Germany sold 51 percent of its company to Germany's largest Internet technology company, Infomatec. IGEL GmbH also became a 90 percent owner of IGEL LLC (USA), while 10 percent of IGEL LLC's ownership has been transferred to me. The consolidation of Infomatec and IGEL provides a solid base for the new partnership to push IGEL's JNT even further, setting a standard for non-Windows-CE-based thin clients. The new partnership also lays the groundwork to take IGEL public in 2001.

Margie: Why did you choose Linux as your installed operating system?

Hans: Linux is one of the most flexible open-source operating systems on the market. It is incredibly stable and performant (no matter what certain benchmarks insinuate). It is the most flexible OS on the market, and if your readers follow IGEL's developments, they will soon be able to enjoy incredible new JNT-based products.

Margie: The Etherminal looks just as “sexy” as the Netwinder. In what way is it different? How is it better?

Hans: IGEL's Etherminal series is a completely different “animal” than the Netwinder. It targets a different market and comes with a much more powerful set of functions and connectivity options. Etherminals do not have or need any hard drive or other mechanical storage device, and are based on legacy PC-compatible technology. The flexible hardware and software concept allows IGEL to react to the increasing demand for processing power in workstations and thin clients within a very short time, giving IGEL a tremendous advantage in time to market. The read-only file system protects the systems resources, making Etherminal thin clients the most safe and secure desktop clients for server-centric computing on the market. Etherminals and their JNT OS are an ideal base for OEMs to start development for almost any kind of dedicated embedded Linux network device. We at IGEL do not see competitors as our enemies, but as an opportunity to license our Etherminal and JNT technology to them.

Margie: Tell us about your product line; how these machines can be used, and who your potential customers are.

Hans: As of today, IGEL offers three thin-client devices. Two of them are based on the same hardware, while the third one is based on more up-scale hardware.

Etherminal W is a JNT-based thin client to be used as a Citrix Metaframe ICA client, UNIX workstation or a character-based network terminal. It supports XDMCP, DHCP, ICA 3 and remote command rsh. It is completely self-booting, and therefore does not require a bootp server. It is centrally managed and configured. The hardware is based on a Media GXi 180MHz processor and is equipped with 16MB of RAM, 8MB DOC flash memory, sound and 4MB of video memory.

Etherminal J comes with the same set of functionality, but adds an embedded Netscape Communicator 4.5 with all the bells and whistles, including Netscape's JVM. The local Netscape is ideal for saving network bandwidth and eliminates the restrictions of 256 colors in an ICA session while browsing the Internet. It also allows Java applications to be run locally. On the hardware side, the unit comes with 32MB of RAM and 16MB of DOC flash memory.

Etherminal J+ comes with the same feature set as Etherminal J, also including the local Netscape Communicator 4.5 and JVM. The hardware is based on a socket 7 design to accommodate processors from 100MHz (Intel Pentium is default) to 300MHz (AMD K6). RAM size is 64MB and DOC flash memory is 16MB.

While Etherminal W and J come with an integrated power supply, Etherminal J+ has an external power supply which eliminates the need for a power supply fan to cool the device. The form factor benefits from this design as well—the unit takes up less than 50 percent of the real estate than that of an Etherminal W or J.

IGEL is currently porting Windows NT Terminal Server's RDP to Linux. Once available, it will be integrated as an additional client protocol into all of IGEL's thin clients. The RDP client will then be distributed under the GPL. IGEL is also a partner in Citrix.

Typical end-user applications are POS, Citrix Metaframe and Winframe ICA terminal, WTS terminals, web surfing, UNIX workstations and Linux workstations. Since IGEL is selling through the traditional computer reseller channel, any distributor, reseller, VAR, ISP or ASP is a potential customer. Of course, we have special conditions for government and educational institutions.

Margie: Thin clients certainly seem to be popular at the moment. Has business been increasing along with the rise in Linux popularity?

Hans: I believe it is actually the other way around. Thin client deployments seem to benefit Linux as a desktop OS and hopefully in the future as a enterprise server as well. Of course, the increasing popularity of Linux has helped us to justify using it as our development platform.

Margie: Do you expect the upward trend to continue? For how long?

Hans: I have been a firm believer for many years that the server-centric computing model is the best way to get the masses to use a computer. It is certainly the most economical way to distribute computing power and applications to the end user.

The client/server model never fulfilled its promises when it comes to productivity issues, low TCO and more effective work environments. Client/server deployments in big corporations create support and help desk nightmares and lead to productivity problems. It even produced legal nightmares due to end users infiltrating corporate networks with unauthorized software. PCs on every user desk, regardless of his or her job function, is in many cases a very costly overkill. It creates huge problems with security and virus issues if end users have too much freedom in what they use or bring into corporate networks.

Today's thin-client technology marries the advantages of server-centric computing and PC computing without the disadvantages of the old mainframe technology. It opens up new opportunities for ASPs and ISPs alike to work together to get the applications to the end user. Linux can play a very vital role in this new computing model, but it desperately needs productivity applications to put a real dent into the current Windows-ruled desktop world. I believe thin-client computing in whatever shape or form will stay around for a very long time to come, and I hope Linux will play an increasing role in this server-centric computing model.

Margie: Any parting thoughts?

Hans: Linux and its open-source movement is the right way to go, and I foresee a very bright future for this operating system. Today's computing world desperately needs innovation—something we don't get any more from current software and hardware vendors. How else can it be explained that we still have to live with an over 20-year-old outdated PC hardware concept and outdated bloated software technology? I personally believe Linux has the potential to become a major player and make big changes in the way we will be computing in the future. What Linux has achieved within a few years is a hint as to what is possible in the future. Linux Journal certainly plays an important role in the development of this new opportunity.

We at IGEL appreciate the continuous support of your publication. Linux Journal plays an important role in our efforts to communicate our message to both the Linux and thin-client worlds.

Margie: Thanks very much for talking to us.

Acronyms

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