by, 19th May 2009 at 10:33 PM (13098 Views)
Every geek has an area of computing that 'does it' for them. For some it's programming and the beauty in finding the most efficient algorithm to a particular problem. For others it's the use of a particular operating system and the challenge of optimising it to a particular solution. For me it's virtualisation.
Virtualisation in itself is nothing new. The basics of the idea date back to early Mainframes with tens or hundreds of VT terminals sharing the power of one supercomputer.
In recent years, as computer power has increased, the technology has found a new lease of life. Especially in the server room - [ame]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Platform_virtualization[/ame].
Today it's not uncommon to find one physical server run 7 or 8 (sometime more) virtual servers. Now it has matured in the server room it's now starting to move to the desktop - [ame]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Desktop_virtualization[/ame]
The most common method is Terminal Servers and Thin Clients. In this model you have one all powerful server and all your client desktops are run a sessions on there. Clients connect to their sessions over the network via KVM (Keyboard/Video/Mouse) terminal boxes known as Thin Clients. There is only one instance of the OS (operating system) which all terminals share.
A second method gaining in popularity is to run one Virtual Machine instance for each desktop and have each of the ThinClients to connect to their own dedicated OS instance. So 20 Thin Clients connects to 1 server running 20 OS's, instead of 20 Thin Clients connecting to 1 server with 1 OS (which they share). The most popular example is VMWare VDI - http://www.vmware.com/products/view/
A third method - Mutliseat Computing - takes the Terminal Server model and moves it to the desktop. Here all the power remains locally at the desktop, which allows more advanced apps to run when compared to the previous two, and you get the ease of management of less physical boxes.
The main player in this field is http://www.ncomputing.com/ . Since discovering nComputing it has been my intention to run a test rig in our Library, and if the test is successful implement the technology in an entire ICT Suite.
Unfortunately early test of nComputing have shown up some problems which mean it will not scale up to a complete ICT Suite.
The initial problem was the incompatibility with Window XP SP3 and the supplied version of the nComputing software. At first glance it seems that the only way of upgrading the software (to a SP3 compatible version) is through an automatic update which refused beyond all reason to work.
Exploring their support site finds a lack of quality Forum or Knowledge Base articles. Always a bad sign.
Hidden in an unassuming FAQ I did eventually find a manual download for the SP3 compatible version (soon to be tested). But in finding I spent to much time around their support site and become increasingly disturbed at the lack of support this product is recieving.
Windows Vista support has been 'experimental' and only available or one of thier product lines for quiet a while. It seems to continuously miss promised release dates. 64bit support is a complete non starter.
With memory being the key performance limiter to this type of system and 64bit Windows 7 being the next logical step for the desktop. Lack of proper Vista and/or 64bit support means nComputing is a complete non starter.
In my refusal to give up on the idea of Multiseating (I told you virtualisation it my 'geek turn on') I started searching the .net for a viable nComputing alternative.
I stumbled upon http://www.miniframe.com/ but couldn't find all the answers to my questions so the whole thing was confined to the back of my mind for another day.
Strangly the next day a thread appeared on Edugeek - Softxpand system . And who should reply to the thread but a rep from the UK suppliers of SoftXpand!
The guy from SoftXpand, miniframeuk, turns out to be a very helpful chap and answers all my concerns with the technology. Yes SoftXpand supports 64bit Windows 7 and the evidence shows the Isreali developers are keen to update and support their product. It appears to be future proof - result!
Another result is largest UK installation of SoftXpand just so happens to be at a fellow Norfolk secondary school barely 15 miles away! And, the Network Manager there turns out to be a thoroughly agreeable chap who has nothing but praise for SoftXpand at every level!
SoftXpand is an entirely software solution to the Multiseat problem unlike nComputing. nComputing uses a proprietary PCI LAN-like card and KVM terminals to connect the additional workstations to the host.
With SoftXpand all Keyboards, Monitors and Mice are connected directly to the host. The monitors run in 'extended desktop mode' and SoftXpand carves up theses extended displays into individual terminals.
Because of this you need enough USB sockets for all your keyboards and mice, and enough video cards for all your monitors in the host system. 6 workstations require 3 dual head graphics cards. 8 workstations require 4 cards. Finding motherboards with 3 or 4 PCI Express x16 slots can be a challange to say the least!
Mirk, the Network Manager at the local secondary school, invited me to look round his set up. He is using SoftXpand everywhere. all class rooms have at least 6 workstations (1 physical computer). All ICT suites are built around 6:1 miniframes (the name given to the host computer). He has around 50 miniframes in total around the school.
Two things impressed me greatly during my visit. The first was see http://italc.sourceforge.net/ talk flawlessly with all the workstation on all the miniframes.
The second was the library. A massive 8 workstation on 1 miniframe and all 8 where in use. One had a tv program running from BBC iPlayer, two where running flash games, 1 was editing a Publisher document, the rest where running either Internet Explorer or Word.
I watched the user on Publisher import, resize and move a picture. It was faster and smoother than any of my standalone WinSuite (yeuk) desktops could manage. And no the iPlayer did not pixelise or frame skip. Sure he has a powerful desktop running these 8 stations. Quad Opteron and 4Gb ram as I recall, but still video, games, pictures, 8 users and not breaking a sweat!
I'll be testing this system for myself in our SEN department in the not too distant future. If it works I can see it forming the basis of our ICT suites for the foreseeable future.
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