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Thin Client computing is the current system of choice in so many enterprise systems today with the big players being VMware and Citrix and even Windows 2008 trying to nudge its way into the act with its Seamless Remote Desktop Applications. All of these systems provide clients which will access the applicaitons which are run from a central server and all of them are well tested and run on thousands of systems.
Not to be left out Opensource is now getting its act together and the rudimentry underpinnings of a thin client infrastructure with the recent release of Ulteo 3.0 and its Open Source Virtual Desktop and Application Delivery solutions
What is Ulteo?
Ulteo says this about itself on its website:
Ulteo is the start up behind the Open Source Virtual Desktop and Application Delivery solutions for the fast growing virtual desktop market.
By leveraging an open source technical and commercial development Ulteo is bringing to the market the best of the open source and enterprise commercial world, in a more efficient, open and rapid manner and at a much lower costs.
With this commercial open source model, our goal is to become one of the global leaders in the virtual desktop space so that organizations of all size can get an independent, open (source) solution along side or instead of commercial, closed and more expensive alternatives.
This is the brainchild of Gaël Duval (founder of Mandrake Linux, a popular Linux distribution) and Thierry Koehrlen (co-founder of http://www.intalio.com, the leading Open Source BPMS).
Providing an Opensource infrastructure to create a system similar in idea to that of VMware’s thin client and Citrix where a user can get access to desktop applications using only a java enabled Web Browser. While the basic system rpovides the user with access to Linux Open source applications there are modules and installers available to get the system up and running to provide Windows Applications to users as well.
The applications are provided using either a Web Based portal or a complete desktop which runs inside the web browser which the administrator can decied what apps a user or group of users have access to. This is done via a web based back end where the users are setup, addigned to groupd and aapplications which the system is either aware of or told the location of are allocated either permnantly or on a temporary basis.
That last statement is interesting as it allows a cost reduction in Windows Application licences for things like Visio or Project which are expensive not covered under site licences usually and up costing a fortune and not used all the time by all users. Admins can create a pool of apps and deoply them as and when needed.
How do you install it?
Once you’ve gone through a really annoying information collection page, the Ulteo Download Page provides the user with well documented instructions on installing OVD on Ubuntu, Redhat, SLES, Windows or DVD.
The system is split into two main parts, the core admin server and the application server, in many cases the fist time you install OVD you’ll put both of these on the same system, they can however exist happily on different servers and if your core system is a Linux Admin server then its possible to have a windows application server point to this as well.
You can have multiple application servers managed by the same Admin server.
In the case of the Ubuntu server i installed the install procedure was done on an Ubuntu Server using no Gui on it. The software is installed from an Ubuntu repositiory and the system installs all the necessary componants get installed for you. This is for Admin and Application server.
I was quietly impressed by the ease of install and getting this up and running and on the install i setup there was no commercial software. Ubuntu Server 10.04.3 and Ulteo 3.0, Firefox Web Browser on the client as well as the Oracle Java Plugin.
Getting Windows Applications
Installing a core system provides you with a whole list of Linux Applications, mostly the standard fare which comes with a normal Ubuntu Desktop including Firefox, Office Applications, Calculator etc. Which will get you setup quick and easy.
The real power however lies for the enterprise in the Windows Application server plugin, installing this onto a Windows 2008 R2 server running RDP and you add this to the Admin server, now you have access to the Windows Applications from the Desktop or Portal along site those Linux Applications.
End User presentation
From the perspective of the end user, when they login, if you so wish, they will get access to eirher a portal or a complete desktop via the Web Browser. This is all Java based so you need an up to date 1.6 or 1.7 java JRE installed.
The Portal is a webpage which the user logs into which displays the applications the user can launch as well as an area where the user can upload, rename and download files to his or her desktop.
Depending on how you setup the session the user can also have full access (or not) to thier actual desktop so files can be transferred between the two systems.
The portal provides a clean environment for the user and doesn’t force a new desktop paradigm onto the user. This is a similar look and feel to that of Microsoft’s Skydrive/Office 365 and many other online file management sytems.
Each session can be saved between users logging in and logging out or if you would preferr a fresh session can be spawned each login.Although this doesn’t seem to allow users the access to inporting thier own book marks etc. However thats not such a bad thing if you are looking to run a Kiosk.
While the portal is minimal the desktop is just that, from a default install a Linux XFCE desktop is provided however a Windows Desktop could be run if the OVD Windows Application server is installed I belive, I’ve not yet tried this.
Unlike astandard desktop for a Linux Distro the Ulteo esktop again runs inside a browser and only displays the applications you want the user to see. These are displayed both as Smart Menu (for want of a better name) Icons and as Desktop Icons.
If you have setup access from the users actual deskop to the virtual destop then the user could transfer files however within this environment this is the only way fo doing this I’ve found which again epending on your needs may be just what you want.
Pros and Con’s
So what are the pros and cons of using such a system? Well the first and most obvious statment i’ll make is this is opensource software out of the box there are stability issues which may take some tweaking to get resolved. In the setup i’ve used this in Firefox was very unstable, it crashed out a lot. However a bit of fiddling around and support feedback I got Google Chrome installed via a Deb and that is rock solid and fast. There are other little niggles and these are where the biggest con from an enterprise perspective comes in. I’ve run this on a company network and need prompt support. Comanies and systems like this live or die by the support either community or paid for and while I have had feedback from the Ulteo support team, the community support is not all there. The Facebook page is lots of people with setup issues, which agreed a bit of reading on thier behalf could solve the issues, its apparent most of the issues can’t actually read the install guide, however the other posts are Gael trying to promote new features while NEVER answering to queries about bug fixes.
The Google Groups page is equally as poor, with very little feedback if issues are solved (yes, i have posted fixes to all my issues)
I’ve tried paying for support however this is obviously an engineering company and the concept of being paid for what they do hasn’t sunk in yet. when it does I will make sure they are rewarded for thier services.
Something which is worth noting as a positive is the use of the Linux chrooted environment, every user session runs in its own sand box and this is something which I don’t belive other alternatives do very well. so kudo to them for that.
OVD has the underpinnings of a great service, they need to gett paid for support from enterprise and have a better online pricing structire in order to keep going. The software is a bit flaky however perfectly useable. And the underpinnings of a new personal project… If you are looking for a thin client alternative in a school or somewhere with a little less cash than can afford a big player alternative you would do a lot worse than giving this a go. If i’d have known about this when i was teaching Computers it would have saved a lot of time.