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Userful GNU/Linux multi-station software suits general desktop users

By Bruce Byfield on October 12, 2005 (8:00:00 AM)

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While others debate whether GNU/Linux is ready for the desktop, Userful is quietly proving that it is -- and making a profit while doing so.

By combining a mixture of proprietary administrative tools with a modified Red Hat distribution and a GNOME desktop, Userful has updated the concept of timesharing by adapting it to a personal computer. The result is DiscoverStation, a hardware and software solution that connects as many as 10 terminals to a single computer.

The system is being marketed mainly as a way to reduce administration time and costs. Other selling points include security and environmental friendliness, because fewer computers are required.

The system is proving especially attractive to cash-strapped public libraries across North America. Even more importantly, it is being used by library patrons with only minor difficulties.

Hardware, administration software, and security

DiscoverStations' basic components will be familiar to any moderately experienced GNU/Linux user. The hardware consists of standard components and, apart from the customized administration tools, the software and security model consists largely of standard Unix features and configuration options.

Physically, DiscoverStation consists of a single computer linked to as many as 10 stations through dual-head video cards and USB hubs. Each station consists of a keyboard with USB ports and monitor. A station may also have an external diskette drive.

The proprietary software in DiscoverStation consists of specialized graphical administrative tools. In addition to dialogues for setting network connections and the system time, they include graphical user reports, controls for paid printing, and Internet filters that comply with the standards set by the US Children's Internet Protection Act. Administrators can also customize the welcome screen and login menu, and set the amount of time that customers can use a station.

About Userful

Userful was founded in 1999 by Timothy Griffin, now president and CEO. From the start, Griffin says, "We saw open source as the next big wave." The company began work on a kernel-based approach to a multi-station computer, similar to the one implemented by the HP 441, but it abandoned this approach because of problems with supporting multiple video cards.

Since releasing its Desktop Multiplier product in 2002, Userful has focused mainly on library deployments. Userful has 25 employees, is based in Calgary, Canada, and recently opened a second office in Victoria, Canada, headed by Daniel Griffin. In 2004, Userful was named the 15th fastest growing company in Alberta with revenues under $20 million by Alberta Venture magazine.

While not ruling out an eventual IPO, Timothy Griffin says that Userful is not currently considering one. Having "recently achieved profitability," Userful is considering funding options for its next stage of development.

Security is a major selling point of DiscoverStation. According to Timothy Griffin, president and founder of Userful, the foundation of the system's security is GNU/Linux's basic features, such as strong user permissions, multiple-user login, and the inclusion of Security-Enhanced Linux (SE Linux).

In addition, Userful installs with a few basic precautions, such as having only the default kernel in the boot menu, setting the computer to boot only from the hard drive, and not supplying a command line on the desktop. Diskettes and flash drives are automounted on the desktop, but this potential security hole is countered by limiting the login time for each user and automatically wiping the users' home directories when they log out.

A potential weak spot seems to be that the systems allow remote logins -- always a problem in a security architecture. However, remote logins are inescapable in multi-branch libraries. On the whole, Userful seems to have done a thoughtful job of combining off-the-shelf hardware and software, customizing them for the chosen market, and adding its own software to fill in the gaps.

DiscoverStation administration
DiscoverStation Admin - click to enlarge

What the public sees

The DiscoverStation desktop fits its target audience of general users almost perfectly. In fact, the desktop is easily the most user-friendly interface for GNU/Linux that I've ever seen.

On logging into a DiscoverStation, users are given a basic menu of items such as Internet, Large Print, Resume, or Kids (Filtered). They can also choose one of 30 languages for the desktop from a pull-down menu.

Before choosing a task, users must agree to terms of use and log in using their library ID. Then the desktop opens, along with the application for the selected tasks. If they prefer, users can return to the login menu when they are finished with a task, or use the desktop menu instead.

The interface is a modified GNOME desktop. The main differences from an ordinary desktop are a counter showing a user's remaining login time, and the replacement of the Menu button with one labeled Start Here.

The application menu is also modified, with task descriptions replacing application names. However, once opened, the programs are instantly familiar to GNU/Linux users. Selecting Word Processor or Drawing, for example, starts, while Photo Editor opens the GIMP. The Web browser is a Mozilla variant. The overall selection is small -- about three dozen choices -- but tightly targeted to a general audience. Administrators can transfer to the root account from any workstation by using a keyboard shortcut to open a login screen.

Users can save to the /home directory for their workstation or to automounted external drives, and programs can be modified for the duration of their session. When users log out, the home directory is wiped and returned to its original state for the next patron. Home directories also revert to their original state if a workstation is inactive for a certain period of time.

Next: What clients and users say

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on Userful GNU/Linux multi-station software suits general desktop users

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sounds good

Posted by: Hillbilly on October 13, 2005 03:39 AM
sounds a lot like a server & thin clients setup to me, i see no problem with server & thin clients, running Linux it will pay off knowing you wont have to worry about the MS Windows virus du jour that occurs about once a month, i would definitly trust this much more than i would a Windows network...


Re:sounds good

Posted by: The Spoonman on October 13, 2005 03:55 AM
Of course, if you have competent admins, you don't have to worry about it either. I think the last virus I remember having any real trouble with was the Jerusalem virus...



Posted by: Anonymous Coward on October 13, 2005 05:29 AM
du jour means 'of the day'. You do the math.


Re:sounds good

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on October 13, 2005 06:45 AM
No it is a multi headed machine. Once machine with lots of screens, keyboards and mice.


Groovix | Open Solutions

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on October 13, 2005 07:39 PM
Groovix | Open Solutions is another company doing the same, so as for journalism standards, this article hasn't explored the full market and given competitors a place to comment! Groovix delivers the whole system though, not only the software!

see for this alternative:
<a href="" title="">Groovix | Open Solutions</a>

unfortunately, I don't see anything on availabiltity in Europe on both sites!

p.s. noppe I'm not paid by Groovix, as I said: European, were they don't deliver!


Dual station for home use

Posted by: Danilo Câmara on October 14, 2005 12:27 AM
I have a dual head video card and adittional USB ports. Anyone knows if there is an simple way I could connect a second monitor/keyboard/mouse and setup a dual station for home use? Of course, not buying Userful product (i'm not in USA/Canada).


Re:Dual station for home use

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on October 14, 2005 10:59 AM
Simple way? Not really, but I use it and it works. You can check <a href="" title=""></a> or the " XFree-Local-multi-user-HOWTO" shipped with your prefered distro.


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