Ultra-thin client to close digital divide

OSS solution mooted at MS conference

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A group of not-for-profit developers, called Ndiyo (Swahili for "yes"), has announced an ultra-thin-client system which, it says, could make computing available to billions more people across the planet.

The Nivo (network in, video out) box is a sub-£100, ultra-ultra-thin client that can be networked along with several others to a central PC/server. It is cheaper, more accessible and more environmentally friendly than a PC, Ndiyo argues, needing much less in the way of raw materials to build, and consuming far less power. It is also based on non-proprietary standards and open source software.

Speaking last week at the Less is More conference held at Microsoft Research in Cambridge, Ndiyo's Seb Wills argued that PCs are inflexible, suffer from frequent hardware failure, need replacing every three years, and are very expensive. He concluded that PCs are not a sustainable way of providing networked computer workstations, particularly in the developing world where the cost of even a single PC can be prohibitive.

Ndiyo proposes stripping back to the bare minimum, making networked computing a more economically, administratively and environmentally sustainable proposition.

It says that rather than starting with a PC and taking out bits it doesn't need, it started with the monitor and then thought about what needed to be added. All the complexity is kept in the server, and mere compressed pixels are sent to the Nivo box via a 100Mbit ethernet connection.

The Nivo box is just 12 x 8 x 2 cm, and houses ports for ethernet, power, keyboard, mouse and VGA. It contains 2Mb video RAM, FPGA, and an Ethernet controller. A network of 20 clients, networked to a single server, and used for everyday office applications would cost around £800, the group says.

The next version, which will be smaller still, will also have sound, and local USB ports. Ndiyo's ultimate vision is for the Nivo box to become a chip inside a monitor, and for the connection to the server to be wireless.

"It's kind of amusing that we've ended up going public via a conference hosted at, of all places, Microsoft Research," said Dr Seb Wills, head of Ndiyo. "In spite of our clearly divergent beliefs to those of Microsoft, the conference organisers recognised that the Ndiyo project fits well with the conference's theme and accepted our paper for presentation at the event."

Ndiyo envisions the Nivo box in use in schools, small businesses and internet cafes. A slide presentation, complete with pictures, expanding its thinking can be found here (pdf). ®

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