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Thin clients and OLPC at OLS day three

By David Graham on June 30, 2007 (4:00:00 PM)

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The third day of the Ottawa Linux Symposium (OLS) featured Jon 'maddog' Hall talking about his dreams for the spread of the Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP) throughout the third world as an inexpensive, environmentally friendly way of helping get another billion people on the Internet, along with an update on the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, and several other talks.

Hall spoke in the afternoon at a very well attended session entitled "Thin clients/phat results - are we there yet?" Hall started with his trademark trademark disclaimer where he advised that his lawyers tell him he must remind his audience that Linux is a trademark of Linus Torvalds, among other trademark warnings.

Hall says he has been in computers since 1969, from the era when computers were huge, expensive mainframes. Programmers picked up the habit of doing their work in the middle of the night at this time, he commented at least somewhat jokingly because the middle of the night was the only time students could gain access to the mainframes as the professors were not using them at that hour.

Eventually, minicomputers and timesharing were born. Computers had operators and terminal users could rely on them to handle regular backups and restorations when they made mistakes. Sometimes timeshare computers had too many users on and you could sense this as your five key-presses that you typed would return to you all together after a few seconds, Hall commented.

Finally the personal computer came along, he says. These computers, unlike their predecessors, spent most of their time idling and burning up a lot of electricity and making a lot of noise. He says that in France, there are noise level enforcers who monitor workspace noise with gauges to enforce noise limits. PCs take up a lot of space, he continued. They dominate desks leaving little room for any other work. They are very inefficient, he says, each requiring its own memory and disk space. And they become obsolete quickly. But this talk is about thin clients, he says, not PCs.

Not to get to his point too quickly, he paused to take a few more swipes at PCs noting that desktop security is very poor, citing an example where a government employee was found bringing classified data home on her USB key to work on next to her drug dealing boyfriend. Cleaning crews, too, Hall says can be a threat to desktop security.

"What is the real problem?" Hall asked, showing a photo of his parents. His father, he says, was an airplane mechanic who took apart the family car engine and put it back together multiple times without any missing or leftover parts, without instructions. Mom & pop, he says, don't want to spend time compiling kernels, they expect their computers to just work.

There is a complex electrical appliance that mom & pop can use that just works, Hall says. It is called the telephone. The telephone network is not trivial, requiring highly skilled people to maintain it, but it is all hidden from the end user.

The Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP) thin clients with free software, Hall says, are smaller, thinner, cheaper, lower powered, and easier to use than their PC counter parts. LTSP servers need heavy power, but are a single point of work and maintenance for users and administrators. LTSP is a hit around the world, Hall says. Old systems such as 486s can be reused as terminals. Hall cited the example of a school that used a number of donated obsolete computers and a donated server using LTSP on no budget to provide their school with a usable computer system.

Terminals generally have no local storage, Hall says, and can be easily turned off at night, and they don't lend to software piracy by their nature. He used the opportunity to go on a tangent about how he agrees software piracy is bad. Software authors have every right to say how they would like to see their software used, he says. Users are free to use or not use that software.

On the topic of piracy, he discussed how Brazil how distributed a large number of very cheap Linux computers. Within not too long, a major software corporation complained to the president of Brazil that the people were buying the computers and at a rate of around 75% were replacing Linux with pirated copies of another operating system. When asked by the government what to make of this, Hall replied that this is progress, as it is down from the national 84% piracy rate in the country.

Hall says that the piracy rate in the US is estimated at 34%, while it is 96% in Vietnam. People in Vietnam, he pointed out, make $2 or $3 per day and should not be expected to pay the $300 for a shiny CD which they know only costs $2 to get down the street.

The third world needs to be on the Internet, Hall says, but it can't afford to do it with proprietary software. But using LTSP they could.

Hall says that global warming is a major and significant issue lately. Imagine, he says, if one billion more people brought desktops on line each using 400 to 500 watts of electricity. Much of the power used by a computer is turned to heat, he says, further adding to the cost in poorer areas by increasing the cost of air conditioning to make up for the extra heat.

Still on the issue of the environment, he says that in his home town in New Hampshire, he used to drive down to the local dump, and later he drove up to the local dump, and eventually it was closed because it was so full that water run-off was starting to affect the drinking water supply for his town. Thin clients are very small, he says, able to fit in the back of a monitor. Thin clients have no moving parts, no noise, and provide a good lifespan -- so they don't end up in landfills quite so quickly.

LTSP should be used to create a new open business model, he says. Allow people to become entrepreneurs with LTSP. Train people to provide LTSP services, he continued, reminiscing on the early days of ISPs before the big companies had the Internet figured out. Local ISPs used to be small local businesses where the clients could actually talk to the operators of the business in a meaningful way, but these were eventually bought up by larger companies and the service deteriorated to the point of becoming similar in level to that of large software companies. LTSB-based net cafes could exist under this model, he suggested.

In South America, Hall says, 80% of people live in urban environments. Basic services are very expensive when they're available at all. An income of $1,000 a month is considered very good in most cases. One hundred clients would provide this level of income to an LTSP entrepreneur, Hall says, and could provide phone or Internet radio services.

Hall says his goal is to have 150 million thin clients in Brazil, requiring between one and two million servers and creating about two million new high tech jobs in the country. It would create a local support infrastructure and could realistically be done with private money, he says. It would create useful high tech jobs and on site support by entrepreneurs.

Linux on Mobile Phones

Another of the sessions of the third day was one entitled the Linux Mobile Phone Birds of a Feather (BoF) by Scott E. Preece of Motorola Mobile Devices and the CE Linux Forum. Preece started by introducing himself and his subject, noting that around 204 million handhelds with Linux are expected to be sold in the year 2012. Motorola expects much of its handheld lineup to run Linux, he says.

Linux is a good platform for experimentation, and by its nature provides good access to talent. Lots of people want to learn Linux, while not as many are interested in learning to develop for Symbian or Windows. Linux, he says, is a solid technology. It can be configured for small systems while retaining large system capabilities. It can be modified to suit needs as appropriate.

Companies using Linux for handhelds have been banding together lately to form a number of collaborative initiatives. There are four major ones, he says, listing the Linux Foundation, the Consumer Electronic Linux Forum, the Linux Phone Standards Forum, and the Linux in Mobile Foundation as well as two open source projects working on the topic.

One of these is GNOME which has a community effort to address mobile phones, and the other is OpenMoko, which aims to have a completely free mobile phone stack except for the GSM stack which is hard-coded into a chip. The OpenMoko project, Preece says, is a community style, code-centric, project under a corporate structure.

Preece described the various foundations at some length before tension began to build in the room over his employer's apparent GPL violations. Motorola, says several members of the audience, has been releasing Linux-based handheld devices already, but in violation of the GPL, has not been providing access to the source code for these devices.

David Schlesinger of Access Linux says that his company would be releasing all the code for its phones no later than the release of the phones themselves, to much enthusiasm.

Preece promised to once again push his company to take the GPL complaints seriously and try to address them.

One Laptop Per Child

Andrew Clunis

The last session I attended on the third day was a BOF about the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project presented by OLPC volunteer Andrew Clunis.

"It's an education project, not a laptop project", Clunis began, quoting OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte. A high quality education is the key to growing a healthy society, he continued, and an inexpensive laptop computer for every child in the world is a good way of doing it.

Children learn by doing. Until they are about five, a child only learns what they are interested in learning, at the end of which you go to kindergarten and enter the instruction/homework cycle of modern education, Clunis says. The OLPC project helps kids learn by doing and by interacting.

Collaboration is paramount. If our network connections go down, he says, our laptops become warm bricks. OLPC laptops take this to heart by including networkability of applications directly in the human interface specification.

Everything, Clunis says, from the firmware stack to the applications are free software. It needs to be malleable, as he put it. OLPC is not interested in the consumer laptops of the west.

The laptops themselves depend on as little hardware as possible. They use 802.11s ESS mesh networking for their connectivity. Mesh networking allows each laptop to relay data for other laptops to reach the access point even if they are out of range of it directly. The access point itself, for its part, Clunis says will likely be connected to the Internet by satellite in most cases.

The recharge mechanism for the laptop can use pretty much anything that generates power, although the prototype's crank has been replaced with a pull chord to use the more powerful upper arm muscles instead of the relatively weak wrist muscles, Clunis says. As a result of this means of keeping the battery charged, power management is very important. He described the power usage of the laptops as an "order of magnitude" lower than the 20 or 30 watts typically used by modern laptops.

The laptop is powered by a 466MHz AMD Geode LX-700 processor with 256MB of RAM, a 1GB flash drive on jffs2 with compression to bring its capacity to around 2GB, a specialized LCD, "CaFE" ASIC for greater NAND access, a camera and an SD card slot. The laptop itself spots several USB ports and jacks, and has no mechanically moving parts, although the laptop has wireless antennas that flip up and a monitor that swivels on its base.

An OLPC laptop was circulated through the audience at the session, often getting caught for extended periods at individuals fascinated by the tiny, dinner-plate-sized machine.

A member of the audience indicated that the first shipment of OLPC laptops is due to be shipped this fall. 1.2 million OLPC laptops are expected to go to Libya at that time.

Clunis explained that the laptop frames are color coded by order to help track black market and theft. The laptops themselves are designed to be relatively theft resistant by not being useful outside of range of its parent access point and by having some form of key required to use the machine.

There was a good deal of cynicism in the room about the value of these laptops in the many parts of the world where the children who would be receiving them are far too hungry to really appreciate the value of the education from them beyond what food their parents may be able to purchase by selling the machines.

Similarly some people present felt that the laptops would be difficult for their owners to hold on to without being stolen in many parts of the poorest countries where owning things is difficult due to high crime rates. Clunis did not have a clear answer to these concerns.

The third day of OLS wrapped up with my laptop taking a tumble down the stairs between the second and third floors of the venue, though the eight-year-old Dell doesn't seem to be any worse for wear, save for a broken clip. The next day of the conference is the last, with kernel SCSI maintainer James Bottomley's keynote to wrap up the conference.

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