October 28, 2004

1-Box to serve them all

Author: Tina Gasperson

Hewlett-Packard made news last June when it announced it would start a Southeast Asia rollout of its Multi-user 441 Desktop, a low-cost Linux-based computing setup that allows up to four users to share one computer, each with his own monitor, keyboard, mouse, and piece of the CPU. But Userful, a computing services company in Alberta, Canada, has been selling its own multi-user Linux, called 1-Box, for two years already. The system makes it possible for up to 10 users at a time to maximize the efficiency of one computer.HP positions its multi-user Linux product as a solution for emerging markets in the education sector in Third World countries. But Userful is going for North American as well as international business by marketing 1-Box to public libraries, enterprise resellers, and OEMs. According to Userful president Tim Griffin, the company has been working on the software application since 2000.

1-Box uses one tower PC with up to five dual-head video cards driving 10 monitors, and a USB hub to plug in keyboards and mice. Software required includes some flavor of Linux, as well as the 1-Box application. 1-Box supports any software that will run on Linux and costs $99, plus $79 per user.

"Computers spend most of the day idle," says Griffin. "Here we have one box leveraging that underutilized power to turn one computer into 10."

The company has already caught the attention of public libraries across Canada and the United States as a way for budget-crunched librarians to offer computer access to patrons at drastically lower costs, especially compared to workstations or terminals running proprietary operating systems and those which require high-dollar server hardware and networking expertise.

For example, the Coquitlam Public Library in British Columbia is one of the most recent adopters of 1-Box, which it uses coupled with Userful's own custom Linux distribution called Discovery Station. That product is tailor-made for public access computers. It has built-in security functions that lock down each terminal, manage logins, and keep track of patrons' time allotments each day.

The library had previously suffered from myriad ills, including lack of funds, vandalism of computer hardware, and introduction of Trojans and viruses. When the library discovered Userful and its 1-Box system coupled with Discovery Station, on-call system admin and part-time librarian Kathleen Peters called it a "lifeboat."

Coquitlam was able to roll out four PCs running 1-Box on Linux and thereby reproduce the benefits of having 20 PCs running Windows XP and Microsoft Office, security cabinets, and a proxy server. The deal it has with Userful specifies that it will receive new hardware every 30-34 months and a 100% guarantee on software. The library says it is saving about 40% on total hardware and software costs compared to a traditional networked environment.

Griffin says another library customer, the Greater Victoria Public Library, is getting ready next week to roll out about 100 more stations running 1-Box.

Userful launched a reseller program this month, but it is too early to gauge results. "There's been a lot of interest internationally," Griffin says, "but it's just getting going." The company also offers 1-Box to Linux companies that want to include it in their distribution, and to OEMs that want to offer a complete turnkey package including hardware. Each OEM is free to set its own price for hardware, says Griffin.


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