LTSP 5 - Making Thin Clients Phat

Last year, I wrote about our school district's implementation of LTSP. In the article, I pointed out the significant limitations a thin client environment gives you. While I don't think my article was the reason the issues were addressed, less than a year later just about every limitation I highlighted has been eradicated. Welcome LTSP 5.

To be fair, many of the problems I had back in 2003 were solved in LTSP 4.2. The differences with version 5, however, are so significant, that it seems to warrant lots of praise. First, let's look at the philosophy change:

MueKow

MueKow (pronounced "Moo Cow") is a complete change to the way the thin client environment runs. In previous versions of LTSP, there was an entire "operating system" that was the thin client environment. The OS was hosted on a Linux system, but the thin clients actually ran their own operating system mounted over NFS. MueKow changes this by having the thin clients run 95% of their environment from the host operating system. What this means is that the thin clients are actually running Suse, or Ubuntu, or Fedora, instead of running LTSP hosted from the major distro.

While a bit confusing, the new system means that installing applications for the thin clients is as simple as chroot'ing to the LTSP directory, and installing whatever apps you desire. This means MUCH less burden on the LTSP developers, because they're no longer responsible for compiling and installing every application. Thankfully, it frees them up to make the 5% of the LTSP environment that is unique even more awesome. And they've been doing just that.

Tasty Treats from my Test Server

In preparation for a massive upgrade over the summer, I installed LTSP 5 yesterday running on Edubuntu. While the installation process isn't totally clear, the process did go without too many hitches. When booting up my thin client, I was thrilled at the new interface! Here's a quick list of things that made me grin:

  • The new display manager, ldm, is simple, clean, and effective.
  • X traffic is all routed through SSH, which means security.
  • Plugging in a USB storage device mounts the drive on the desktop, exactly like a regular workstation. End users will expect this, sysadmins will be awed. (This worked in 4.2 as well, but it's extremely cool)
  • Audio with PulseAudio is amazing. Nothing to configure, nothing to set, just wonderful sound on the thin client
  • Multimedia sync. Oh. My. Word. I don't know what secret sauce allows this to work so well, but audio/video sync seems awesome. I suspect PulseAudio is the hero, but whatever the reason, it's incredible.
  • Hardware support is great. I tried a handful of thin clients, and everything was auto detected, and booted right up.

So There's Nothing I Can do to Help?

There are a few things that have always been lacking with LTSP. One is documentation. The developers and users have always more than made up for it with quick and courteous help via IRC and email. Hopefully with the drastic new version, we'll see some drastic new documentation. I say that partially to spurn myself into being part of the solution. Feel free to join me. :)

The other area that hurts LTSP is the lack of a GUI configuration. After a few years of editing the config file by hand, it's not a big deal. Heck, for most things I actually prefer a text based config file. It is, however, a bit overwhelming for a new user. Considering many LTSP installs are done by teachers as opposed to sysadmins -- a GUI is really important. Thankfully, OpenSUSE Easy-LTSP is part of the Google Summer of Code 2008!

Yay! Gimme More, Gimme More!

Getting started with thin clients is quite simple. LTSP version 5 is already integrated into Fedora9, AltLinux, openSUSE-Edu, Debian, Ubuntu, and *almost* into Gentoo. If you are using a different distro, just drop on over to www.ltsp.org and pick up a copy to install yourself. The development team hangs out at the Freenode IRC network in the #ltsp channel. They're friendly, helpful, and pretty tolerant of dumb questions. (I know this from experience!)

Thin clients are a perfect fit for me in education. They're a perfect fit for a business environment. They're also a perfect solution to fill a household with computers. With all that perfection going on, how can you resist trying it out? :o)

Shawn is Associate Editor here at Linux Journal, and has been around Linux since the beginning. He has a passion for open source, and he loves to teach. He also drinks too much coffee, which often shows in his writing. You can contact Shawn via e-mail, ljeditor@linuxjournal.com.

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