Caldera spin-off pushes Linux thin clients

The ones who don't want to go to Utah reckon there's thin client life in old 486s

iCentrix is a Hampshire-based Internet software company formed by some former Caldera employees, led by Roger Gross, after the Caldera operation in Andover was closed (separate story). iCentrix sees its main thrust as being to develop browsing for very thin clients by putting the browser on the server and using a Linux client. In this way, the same performance can be achieved with a low-powered 486 as with the latest Pentium, and at a fraction of the price, since old PCs can be used as clients or network computers. There is no user data to back up, and there is a high degree of security and reliability because of the design, since the server can be kept in a secure physical location, with only the terminal, monitor and mouse exposed to the user. iCentrix' first product, just released, is the AMD-based MarioNet Internet appliance for the educational market, and consists of legacy PCs linked to a MarioNet Internet appliance, and then to the Internet via an ISDN router. It uses Navigator as the browser. The first customer was a school in Hampshire, which went live recently. The cost per seat is around £300, which compares with some £750 for a networked PC. Gross says there appears to be no problem with a supply of donated PCs. To keep costs down, schools are credited with the value of any legacy PCs that they already have, or obtain, for an installation. Another type of market that iCentrix is actively investigating is in South African schools in remote areas. Internet access by satellite is followed by wireless distribution over the last kilometre or so: it is usually not possible to lay copper wire, because it gets ripped out and sold. Gross claims that the iCentrix OPTIC protocol (optimal protocol for the transmission of Internet content) is superior to Citrix' method of passing data between the client and server for Internet access. In the case of black and white screen wireless devices, iCentrix uses the server to reduce the amount of data transmitted by sending only three bits for a grey scale pixel, rather than 24 bits. In addition, in wireless modes the iCentrix client only needs to resend if necessary the parts that have not been received, rather than the whole file. Parsing and rendering is performed on the MarioNet server, which stores information about the screen resolution, colour depth and video memory of the client. Pre-formatted web pages can then be sent to the client, to optimise transmission and ensure correct display. The technique suits ultra-thin clients that cannot sensibly run a browser, but can connect to the Internet via a LAN, wireless connection, or dial-up connection. Products with this technology are planned at the end of the year. MarioNet can also be used with software that iCentrix is developing to access PDAs. It is likely that Windows CE devices will be targeted before other devices (including Epoch), because a Win32 development environment is being used, which is a little strange for a group with its roots in open source. So far, the emphasis has been to produce a low-cost, child- and vandal-proof Internet access system, for use in schools. Future plans include improved browsing capability for cell phones and other thin clients, and in devices at youth clubs, public libraries, museums, cellular telephones, bus shelter arrival indicators and kiosks generally. It would be possible to add word processing and a spread sheet, for example, from the Star Office suite, although this is not being planned initially because Gross believes that such software will come from the Internet. For very thin clients, the heat and power consumption of x86 processors is often too great, especially as browsers are fast approaching 30 megabytes. Putting the browser on the server conserves client power supply needs, and lessens the heat generated. Gross himself evidently has a fair understanding of these power issues since he holds a US patent for a software idle detection system for power management, which is the basis for advanced power management. At present, iCentrix is using its own Linux distribution, but it expects to make arrangements to endorse both the Caldera and Red Hat distributions. iCentrix may even act as a Caldera reseller. Resellers are being appointed, and Gross says he is determined not to compete with the channel: business leads will be passed on. ®

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