July 15, 2003

NoMachine offers universal thin client appeal

- by Lee Schlesinger -
Linux naturally lends itself to thin client computing -- it's easy to boot remote workstations off a Linux server with software as basic as an X Window server or as useful as the Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP). Rome-based NoMachine is now offering thin client computing with a new twist. NoMachine's NX Server and NX Client let you use the same client software on both Windows and Linux machines. Organizations deploying Linux client/server applications, as well as those considering moving their desktops to Linux, will find NoMachine's NX software an elegant, cost-effective alternative that's easy to implement.

Thin client computing lets users run applications on a remote server and display the results locally. NX Client works something like VNC (see our recent story), but instead of using Remote Frame Buffer protocol, NX Client acts as an X Window server. Thin clients help contain costs by eliminating the need to install applications at each user's desktop, and improve security by limiting the availability of applications and data. The clients themselves can be dedicated hardware devices or regular computers running thin client software.

NoMachine excels in the breadth of platforms it supports. NoMachine has server editions for personal, small business, and enterprise use on Red Hat, SuSE, Mandrake, Debian, and United Linux. The range of client platforms is even wider, including all those Linux systems plus Windows 9x/NT/2000/XP, iPaq and Zaurus 5xxx handhelds, and even PlayStation 2. And the price is right -- NX Client is free. The server costs €54.50, €124.50, or €494.50, depending on the edition, per server, with no per-client-connection costs. For a product of this scope, that's nearly free. Of course, the company has to keep costs down because alternative products, like LTSP, are free, but the NX products offer advantages worth paying for.

One of those advantages is security. To run NX Server on a Linux server, you must be running an SSH daemon, as NX uses SSH remote execution facilities. All network communication takes place over SSL-encrypted links. Another key advantage is performance. The client and server components compress X traffic for transmission over the network to provide a responsive connection to users connecting across the Internet. According to the company:

NoMachine has developed exclusive X protocol compression techniques and an integrated set of proxy agents that make it possible to run complete remote desktop sessions, even at full screen, using narrowband Internet connections, at speeds as low as those offered by a 9600 baud modem.

I tested NX Server on a Mandrake 9.1 box. You must install NX Client software on the server too before installing NX Server to avoid failed dependency errors. My installation went flawlessly. When it finished, the installation routine printed two informational messages instructing how to add a user and enable printer and file sharing. Both are console commands -- there's no GUI management application. The final step in server installation is to move an activation key to an NX directory. After doing everything right my client still failing to connect. NoMachine's tech support staff walked me through additional steps I needed to take in order for NX Server to accept SSH connections.

NX Client installed equally easily on both the Mandrake machine and a Windows XP computer. A wizard guides you through setting the connection parameters, including choosing KDE, Gnome, or custom window settings, then puts an icon on the desktop to invoke a connection with the right parameters.

Once the server authenticates your client, you're presented with a Window that looks just like a native session on your chosen server. Anything you can do locally you can now do remotely. Response time, even connecting to NoMachine's test server across the Internet (more than 20 hops away), showed very little lag. I didn't try stressing the server with dozens or hundreds of clients, but NoMachine lets you aggregate servers into a single logical node if server performance becomes a bottleneck.

Many thin clients run against a Windows server, using software like Microsoft Terminal Services 2003, Citrix MetaFrame and Tarantella Enterprise 3. NX Client can work with those platforms too -- the company says, "NX encapsulates and translates into X protocol the Remote Desktop Protocol used by Microsoft Windows NT/2000 Terminal Server Edition and Citrix Metaframe, and Remote Frame Buffer, the protocol used by VNC" -- and NX Server provides a professional alternative for those who prefer a Linux server platform.

I was extremely impressed with NX Server and NX Client, which hit the market only five months ago. If NoMachine manages to get the word out, NX Server should become a popular tool indeed.

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