Linux Terminal Server Project
The Open Source movement can help many people and institutions in Latin America by giving them access to technologies and knowledge that are otherwise restricted to developed countries. The lack of economic resources, proper infrastructure and technical education for the vast majority of the population are the main reasons why Latin America is far behind the first world in the use of computer technology, and they have prevented it from reaping the benefits of the information revolution the Internet has created. For example, less than 10% of the population of Colombia (estimated at 40 million) has ever logged on the Internet. This is not an exception, and most countries in the region suffer from similar problems. By using cost-effective, easy-to-implement, open-source technology and free software, these countries can catch up with the industrialized world.
There is an open-source project that could make a huge difference in Latin America: the Linux Terminal Server Project or LTSP (http://www.ltsp.org/). The appeal of this project is that it provides an easy way to set up low-cost, diskless workstations that boot from a network server running Linux. Today, many public and private Latin American institutions can hardly afford new computers or expensive software license fees. By using diskless workstations and Linux, they can save large amounts of money and become much more productive. This technology may also be used to teach children and workers the technical skills they require for the future.
In this article I will discuss the LTSP, describe my experiences with it in a small institution in Colombia and examine what is needed to implement and configure it. This article is merely informative, and it's not intended to be an LTSP HOWTO. Precise installation and configuration instructions can be found at the project's web site (http://www.ltsp.org/documentation/).
The goal of LTSP is to create a simplified way of setting up diskless workstations for Linux. By definition, a diskless workstation is a computer that boots after downloading its operating system from a server on the local area network. The LTSP tools accomplish this process by adding small kernel images, XFree86 servers and several other network tools to the server that will pass them to the workstation on request. The diskless workstation only needs a boot ROM for its specific network card in order to obtain the necessary software from the server. Making good use of the open-source software from the Etherboot Project (http://etherboot.sourceforge.net/), the LTSP has created its own boot ROMs and employs them with its software. Understanding that building (burning) a boot ROM for a network card may be a difficult task, a company close to the project, Diskless Workstations (http://www.DisklessWorkstations.com/), offers preconfigured ones for a small price at their web site. It's worth noticing that LTSP's boot ROMs can also be written to a floppy disk from which the diskless workstation can boot.
I started implementing diskless workstations based on the LTSP tools last year, when a small association of sugar cane industry workers needed a low-cost, easy-to-use computer and information management solution for their headquarters. The company, Productivos Ltda., had a very tight budget, and its office workers were not particularly familiar with computers and software. They had only one computer running Windows 95 with an unlicensed version of MS Office to handle letters, accounting and payroll. Most of the office work was still carried out manually. The new manager of the association wanted to buy five more computers to cope with all the work more efficiently. She also wanted a local area network so people could share files and printers and have access to the Internet. While looking on the Net for a low-cost solution to their problem, I came across the LTSP. The solution was at hand. Productivos Ltda. did not have to buy expensive, state-of-the-art computers or pay for costly software license fees. They were going to have an LTSP network and use StarOffice as their productivity tool.
A test of the LTSP software was conducted before the actual installation, using an old diskless Pentium computer and booting from a floppy disk. After a few tweaks that included the correct setting of the international keymaps under X, I decided this was the perfect solution for Productivos Ltda.
The association bought four new AMD K6 class diskless computers with 32MB RAM each (the lowest configuration available) to act as diskless workstations and a PII 350MHz with 128MB RAM to act as server/workstation. Even though this looks like a normal configuration for many small offices, Productivos' budget would have normally been able to afford fewer computers under other circumstances (i.e., a Windows network). Just in software license fees, Productivos Ltda. saved around $3,000 US. To avoid booting from floppy disks, the workstations needed bootable network cards. Four Linksys 10/100Mb bootable network cards were bought directly from DisklessWorkstations at $34 US each. A matching 8-port Linksys 10/100Mb hub was acquired from Outpost.com (http://outpost.com/). The required UTP Level 5 cabling was ready in less than a week. The hub and cabling both cost around $350 US.
Red Hat 6.2 (http://www.redhat.com/) was the distribution of choice for the server because it had been fully tested, and it's easy to configure and maintain. Since all the diskless workstations were going to run X and StarOffice 5.2 (http://www.sun.com/staroffice/) remotely, we decided to stay away from memory-intensive GUIs like GNOME or KDE that would reduce the server's performance. We chose to use a window manager with the basic functions only (start bar and menus) and selected IceWM (http://sourceforge.net/projects/icewm/), the lightest window manager around. Only a couple of entries from IceWM's main configuration files (menu, winoptions) were added or deleted to fit the configuration we wanted. Ten different user IDs were created on the server, each with its own StarOffice workstation installation. It's worth noting that StarOffice is a memory-intensive application, another reason why we chose a light window manager instead of GNOME or KDE. The installation of printers was quite simple. A replacement for Red Hat's print tool that adds an LTSP printer to the options is part of the project's software. Now the new LTSP network was ready. The entire installation and configuration was completed in just one day.
The test by fire came when the users logged on the network. They were enthusiastic about the fact that they now had computers to help them with their work. Nevertheless, they needed some training before actually using the computers. All the users went through a two-week in-house training course to familiarize themselves with the new tools available. The training included computer basics and the uses of StarOffice. At the end of the course they were all working without problems and using their diskless workstations for their (previously manual) tasks.
The association's LTSP network has been running smoothly for more than a year now, and they are even planning to add some more diskless workstations. Productivos Ltda. became much more efficient and, at the same time, gave its workers the chance to learn and explore new technologies. All of this would have been difficult without the help of the LTSP and the Open Source movement.
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