Thin Clients Booting over a Wireless Bridge

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How quickly can thin clients boot over a wireless bridge, and how far apart can they really be?
Evaluating the Performance of a Thin-Client Network

The boot process of a thin client is network-intensive, but once the operating system has been transferred, there is little traffic between the client and the server. As the time required to boot a thin client is a good indicator of the overall usability of the network, this is the metric we used in all our tests.

Our testbed consisted of a 3GHz Pentium 4 with 1GB of RAM as the PXE server. We chose Edubuntu 5.10 for our server, as this (and all newer versions of Edubuntu) come with LTSP included. We used six identical thin clients: 500MHz Pentium III machines with 512MB of RAM—plenty of processing power for our purposes.

Figure 2. Six thin clients are connected to a hub, and in turn, this is connected to wireless bridge device. On the other side of the bridge is the server. Both wireless devices are placed in the Azimuth chamber.

When performing our tests, it was important that the results obtained were free from any external influence. A large part of this was making sure that the wireless bridge was not affected by any other wireless networks, cordless phones operating at 2.4GHz, microwaves or any other sources of Radio Frequency (RF) interference. To this end, we used the Azimuth 301w Test Chamber to house the wireless devices (see Resources). This ensures that any variations in boot times are caused by random variables within the system itself.

The Azimuth is a test platform for system-level testing of 802.11 wireless networks. It holds two wireless devices (in our case, the devices making up our bridge) in separate chambers and provides an artificial medium between them, creating complete isolation from the external RF environment. The Azimuth can attenuate the medium between the wireless devices and can convert the attenuation in decibels to an approximate distance between them. This gives us the repeatability, which is a rare thing in wireless LAN evaluation. A graphic representation of our testbed is shown in Figure 2.

We tested the thin-client network extensively in three different scenarios: first, when multiple clients are booting simultaneously over the network; second, booting a single thin client over the network at varying distances, which are simulated by altering the attenuation introduced by the chamber; and third, booting a single client when there is heavy background network traffic between the server and the other clients on the network.

Figure 3. A Boot Time Comparison of Fixed and Wireless Networks with an Increasing Number of Thin Clients

Figure 4. The Effect of the Bridge Length on Thin-Client Boot Time

Figure 5. Boot Time in the Presence of Background Traffic

Conclusion

As shown in Figure 3, a wired network is much more suitable for a thin-client network. The main limiting factor in using an 802.11g network is its lack of available bandwidth. Offering a maximum data rate of 54Mbps (and actual transfer speeds at less than half that), even an aging 100Mbps Ethernet easily outstrips 802.11g. When using an 802.11g bridge in a network such as this one, it is best to bear in mind its limitations. If your network contains multiple clients, try to stagger their boot procedures if possible.

Second, as shown in Figure 4, keep the bridge length to a minimum. With 802.11g technology, after a length of 25 meters, the boot time for a single client increases sharply, soon hitting the three-minute mark. Finally, our test shows, as illustrated in Figure 5, heavy background traffic (generated either by other clients booting or by external sources) also has a major influence on the clients' boot processes in a wireless environment. As the background traffic reaches 25% of our maximum throughput, the boot times begin to soar. Having pointed out the limitations with 802.11g, 802.11n is on the horizon, and it can offer data rates of 540Mbps, which means these limitations could soon cease to be an issue.

In the meantime, we can recommend a couple ways to speed up the boot process. First, strip out the unneeded services from the thin clients. Second, fix the delay of NFS mounting in klibc, and also try to start LDM as early as possible in the boot process, which means running it as the first service in rc2.d. If you do not need system logs, you can remove syslogd completely from the thin-client startup. Finally, it's worth remembering that after a client has fully booted, it requires very little bandwidth, and current wireless technology is more than capable of supporting a network of thin clients.

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