September 22, 2006

The future of the Linux Terminal Server Project

Author: Jorge O. Castro

Distributed development makes open source tick, but sometimes you just have to get people together in a room -- which is what the Linux Terminal Server Project did last weekend. Members of the project, and developers for several distributions, gathered in Clarkston, Michigan last weekend to plot the future of LTSP -- and it looks good.

LTSP has been around since 1999, when Jim McQuillan and Ron Colcernian decided to solve a customer need at a home health care supply company. LTSP allows you to run Linux on a server, and then use thin clients (almost any computer will do) to connect to the server and receive a full-blown Linux desktop. Since then, millions of Linux desktops have been deployed around the world using LTSP.

The Ubuntu project recognized the value of thin clients, and sought to integrate LTSP into the distribution. By working together with LTSP upstream, Ubuntu CTO Matt Zimmerman created an implementation to ship with Ubuntu 5.10. The Ubuntu-derived Edubuntu offered users an entire deployment right out of the box, but Ubuntu's implementation had some significant changes, enough to consider the work a fork of the codebase.

LTSP project leader McQuillan, and LTSP hacker Scott Balneaves, recognized the need for a unified codebase and chose to dump the old way of doing things, and come up with one codebase for all LTSP variants. This would enable distributions to integrate the software directly so that users could just flip a switch, and deploy.

"Thin clients should be a service that can be enabled by an administrator. Just it turn on and it will work, just like with Apache, or Samba, or CUPS." says McQuillan.

It was easy for McQuillan to find volunteers. Oliver Grawert from Edubuntu volunteered to hack, and was soon joined by Warren Togami and Eric Harrison from the Fedora Project. Vagrant Cascadian, who refuses to disclose his real name, attended on behalf of Debian, which brought in three of the most popular distributions. LTSP hackers Gideon Romm and Scott Balneaves also joined in.

After five days of hacking, the team had mapped out the future of thin clients on Linux and gotten a good deal of the infrastructure in place, including a common, modular codebase that will be easier for distributions to integrate and use.

"We've really lowered the barrier to entry to enable people to deploy Linux desktops on a massive scale, and from a developer standpoint having a common codebase makes it easy for new developers to just jump right in," says Balneaves.

In addition to making it easier to include LTSP in Linux distribution, a number of new LTSP features are in the works as well. One long-awaited feature is local application support. This will allow some applications to run on the thin client, rather than the server. This is useful for multimedia applications, which don't run well over a network. Administrators will be able to decide which packages will run locally, and which run on the server.

Administrative tools are also a high priority, so the project is developing a diagnostic program that will allow users to collect information about their deployment that they can submit to developers when there's a problem. The project also plans to add user management, so administrators can manage sessions from a central location.

The latest stable release of LTSP, version 4.2, introduced local device support, which allows LTSP users on thin clients to use things like USB flash drives, printers, and other devices. Work is now being done to make things like CD burning work on thin clients as well.

The upstream version will be called LTSP 5.0. The team expects a usable implementation of LTSP with these features in Fedora, Ubuntu, and Debian for spring 2007.

McQuillan says he also wants LTSP to be included in other distributions. "We're really looking forward to being joined by other distributions, like Novell and Mandriva, next year." And what will users notice? McQuillan says that "if we do things right, the user won't notice anything at all, and that's a good thing."


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