November 17, 2006

Epatec dwarf PC makes a capable thin client

Author: Michael 'STIBS' Stibane

What can you do with a tiny 200MHz computer? We tested such a computing dwarf, the Epatec eTC thin client, and found you can save big money with this box by using it as a thin client.The cheapest thin client computer from Berlin distributor Epatec is only as big as six jewel cases. (The same product is available worldwide from DMP Electronics.) The €139 box includes a 200MHz Vortex processor and 128MB SDRAM on an embedded board in a black and silver plastic case. The embedded board holds an SIS graphics controller, which takes away 16MB from the system RAM. Included are also the Realtek RTL 8139 100Mbps network controller, soundcard, USB 1.1, and IDE controller. You can mount 2.5-inch hard disks on the underside of the mainbord into a prepared cage. Our test computer was delivered with a 64MB disk-on-chip module, plugged into the IDE connector, and a short IDE cable with 2.5- and 3.5-inch connectors. On the backside of the PC you find ports for VGA, parallel printer, network, sound, two USB 1.1 ports, and two PS/2 connectors for mouse and keyboard. The computer is powered by an external A/C adapter. A look in /proc/cpuinfo showed the vendor_id of the Vortex processor to be SIS.

Thin on Linux

As a first test we ran the little machine as a thin client powered by the Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP). We removed the disk-on-chip module so the eTC had no physical data storage to boot from. In the old-style AMI BIOS we activated the integrated PXE network boot as the first boot device and restarted the PC. It worked instantly with zero additional configuration. After about 30 seconds the GDM login screen of the LTSP server greeted us. There was just one minor glitch: LTSP hardware auto-detection configured the slow VESA mode for the graphics card; the SIS chipset wasn't detected automatically. You can correct this manually by configuring LTSP on the server.

Thanks to the USB ports you can connect external optical drives to the eTC. We installed an external TEAC 24x CD drive so we could boot the machine from a live CD. We tried to boot Puppy Linux, which works well on low-end hardware, but the external USB drive wasn't detected as the source of the compressed image with the root filesystem. We then tried the Slackware/Slax derivative Wolvix and Xubuntu. Both use the Xfce desktop, which is lightweight compared to GNOME or KDE. The Wolvix live CD booted in two minutes, and starting Xubuntu took about three minutes.

After this test we mounted a spare 2.5-inch hard disk from an old notebook and installed Wolvix on it. After two hours of sweating heavily the mini announced completion.

A second installation with a SaxenOS beta install CD finished after roughly 30 minutes. The time difference was due mostly to the installation medium. A live CD needs all the RAM for running itself and leaves little space to unpack the distro image to the hard disk. In comparison, an install CD only occupies the memory for the initial RAM disk and the installer. In case of SaxenOS, this is even a shell script. When booting SaxenOS from hard disk, it took about a minute until the GDM login screen appeared, and 11 seconds more until the Equinox Desktop loads completely. The alternative Xfce, which is also included, takes 30 seconds. The first start of the Opera Web browser in EDE takes 10 seconds. After a reboot, we tested Opera with Xfce. It took 15 seconds to load the browser with this desktop.

Cost saver

The Epatec eTC is too slow for getting real work done with a standalone install, though in emergency cases you could write a letter, send an email, or surf the Web. But as a thin client on a Linux terminal server, you get a lot of bang for a few bucks with nearly no configuration work. Igel, Fujitsu, and Wyse build comparable thin clients, but you probably can't buy them so cheap. The hardware quality is average; the plastic case is a bit wobbly. We miss USB 2.0.

Terminal servers and thin clients have big advantages in places where many computers with the same software configurations are used. Set up just one well-equipped server with LTSP, plug network cables into thin clients, boot them, and you can work. Administration is centralized on the server. You don't have to spend hours installing new programs on 20 or 100 workstations. And thin client hardware costs a fraction of a standalone PC.

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