Thin Client Computing and the NComputing L230 Client

Thin Client is an area that deserves much more press when it comes to the education market. They are of limited use in high-capacity situations like video editing or multimedia production, but just great for ordinary every day word processing or spreadsheets. They work by connecting to a terminal server and running their user session in that server instead of on the desktop. A distinction here between a computer running a terminal services client, and an actual thin client hardware solution, is relevant. While you can use PCs to connect to a terminal server, if that is all the PC does, then it is wasting space and electricity, making noise and heat, and costing money to maintain and repair. The true thin client has no moving parts and a small physical footprint, uses very little power, is silent and costs much less than a PC to buy new.  They have been available for years from the likes of HP-Compaq.

What NComputing has done is to bring down the cost of these devices (to somewhere near $200) and also to provide their own proprietary terminal server to operate them. The company got off to a somewhat difficult start in NZ having gone through several distributors before Insite Technology picked them up. There are a range of models available. Our school has decided to purchase just one of these terminals to begin with, to run a library OPAC search client. Our library system is .eLM from Contec Data Systems, which is implemented in Jade. This means that it must start up a Jade thin client application in order to provide the OPAC function. I set up Vspace (the NComputing terminal server) for this application on a Windows XP virtual machine under Hyper-V with 512 MB of RAM. The first snag was trying to run the Jade application as a desktop shell replacement for Explorer. The L230 provides such a capability, but its firmware limits the length of the commandline to the point that Jade couldn’t be run this way. After much effort the solution was to use the normal desktop startup setting and use a Group Policy configuration to load Jade as the shell. What actually gets loaded in the GPO is a small custom shell that I wrote myself. It displays a tiny window with two buttons on it and uses it to launch the Opac app. One button opens the Opac and the other logs off. This is necessary because the GPO setting doesn’t quite work like a full shell; when the Opac gets closed, the user just gets a blank screen instead of a logoff. So the little shell gives them the option to log off.

The next little hassle was the autologon and similar functionality. On these terminals you can provide a username and password to log onto Windows automatically. Except it didn’t appear to work. After poking around a bit I found the setting in Windows to turn off the requirement to press Ctrl Alt Del to log on. Then the automatic login was fully functional. There are still a few picky little things to sort out, like how to get the terminal session to close at the end of the day so that backups can occur – or else we might have to switch to Shadow Copy based backup for the Jade database. So far I am not sure I want to give unqualified support to NComputing. Their support forums contain some complaints about the system, and I had to do a lot of extra work because of a firmware problem that their support helpdesk just glossed over. We are continuing our evaluation of thin client by buying some second hand terminals on Trademe to see how well they might work in a classroom situation. I’m also looking at what other schools might use. Some schools in NZ are moving to VDI. We don’t probably have enough computers at our site to justify this unless we replaced all 80 or so with VDI terminals.