From laptop to legion - turning one computer into many

Plugable looking to kickstart open-source thin client business

A recently launched Kickstarter-funded project aims to bring $50 thin clients to schools and small businesses, allowing them to turn almost any computer into a multi-user hub.

Thanks to ongoing advances in multi-seat Linux development, manufacturer Plugable was able to base its machines on Fedora, rather than proprietary software, though it also works with Windows Multipoint Server. By doing away with licensing costs, Plugable founder Bernie Thompson says the company can ensure an attractive price. The Kickstarter effort is in place to help the company realize "economies of scale" necessary to drive the cost down.

"Every other solution out there has a software license cost per seat. This doesn't," he asserts.

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The device - which connects a monitor, mouse, keyboard, headphones and microphone to a parent computer via USB 2.0 - has no memory, hard drive or CPU, according to Thompson. "[The client's] behavior is purely determined by the machine it connects to," he says.

While this does mean that each thin client is limited both by available system resources - more clients mean more resource drain - and the capabilities of USB graphics connectivity, Thompson says that the average information worker should be able to function with little trouble.

The fact that most PCs don't use the majority of their system resources all the time, coupled with some optimization technology, helps address those performance concerns - though things like gaming and high-definition video are always going to be problematic.

Thompson is a former employee of DisplayLink, and that company's technology is at the heart of Plugable's products. Much of his current business involves DisplayLink hardware for use in multi-monitor setups, he says.

However, he also credits developers at Red Hat with having done a lot of the heavy lifting as far as implementing this easy-to-use client technology. That said, some of the Kickstarter funding will go toward ironing out bugs in Fedora that could complicate his device's use.

Schools and non-profits are expected to be among the most enthusiastic customers for the device, Thompson says, along with anyone else who needs "lots of machines for the minimum possible cost and the minimum possible maintenance."

Simplicity, according to Thompson, is paramount.

"If it's not plug-and-play, it's really not reachable by normal users," he says.

Email Jon Gold at jgold@nww.com and follow him on Twitter at @NWWJonGold.

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