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Making an X Terminal from a PC 176

PSwiss writes: "I recently wrote an article for Linux Gazette on how to make an X Terminal from an old PC (486s work great). It's a neat application of Linux and would make a good project for some weekend." This is a nice step-by-step guide ... we posted a similar project not too long ago, about diskless linux kiosks.
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Making an X Terminal from a PC

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  • Sort of related...has anyone successfully set up VNC so it could be used from a secure web browser? I'd love to be able to access my work desktop securely via a browser, however I can never quite figure it out. Any ideas/resources?
  • The REAL problem with a VL or ISA vidcard is the high likelihood that they won't have enough DRAM on them to manage a reasonable resolution.

    Most museum piece video cards simply don't support very interesting video modes.

    Fortunately, P5/60's and P5/200's are also dirtcheap landfill fodder as well.
  • There's nothing about a floppy drive or an rs-232 port that makes a machine less stable or slower. The "extra cost" of such things is minimal at best. If those pennies really worry you, you shouldn't be squandering money on computers anyways.

    All this "enforced progress" does is cause perfectly happy computer users to squander resources on otherwise unecessary hardware.
  • I picked up one of those at my University's Surplus Auctions a while back for like $25. It even came with 20MB of RAM, but the absolute worse thing was the (lack of) colors available. It was *black* or *white*, no shades of gray (unless you count the horrid dithering). About the only useful app on the damn thing was xterm, =).
  • Using ssh with X forwarding is much more convenient than futzing around with DISPLAY and xauth. And despite the traffic being sent in plain text, it's still more secure. I used to set DISPLAY by hand, but just running 'ssh -c none otherbox netscape' is much easier.
  • I didn't want to use telnet because, uh, it's crufty and why install both telnet and ssh on a box, when you can tweak ssh to to the job of both. With an ssh config file you can tell it to use no encryption for 192.168.0.* and strong encryption for everything else. Plus ssh does port forwarding much better than telnet does.
  • So, I'm a student at CMU and am thinking about buying a cheap laptop (somewhere between a 486 and a Pentium II), slapping a wireless card on it, and exploiting CMU's almost-ubiquitous wireless network to use it as a nice and portable X terminal.

    Are there any concerns specific to laptops that would be nice to know? For example, are there any particular types of laptop hardware I should avoid? Also, what mostly determines how smoothly an X terminal runs -- memory, the video card, cpu power, or something else?

    Lastly, does anybody happen to know of a good place online (besides, say, E-Bay) to get "outdated" laptops?
  • I was actually thinking of doing something like this with booting from a cd-rom. Floppies are flakey, y'know. /me wonders more about how I would fit this on a boot prom so I can boot a box without a harddisk and without a floppy, just from the network.

    Which brings me to another point (sorry for the offtopicness), does anyone know if it's possible to have a openfirmware-like BIOS for x86 boxen? Because that would make all this just moot point.

  • Hell yes... Thin clients (like X terminals) rock. I am posting this on a SunRay (which has probably less hardware).

    What would be really cool if you could put chipcard readers on your X terminal to imitate the desk-hopping usefulness of a SunRay. Not to mention it will run fine (speedy even) on a 10Mbit network.

    Oh, more info about the SunRay appliance I am using right now can be had here [].

  • You don't get it.

    This is about an X terminal. It doesn't have to run all those bulky apps. It only has networking support and a X display server running (and maybe possible esd for sound). Installing an *entire* distro for a homegrown X terminal is truly overkill and a waste of time (and effort).

    The big machine you log into with it has all the apps, the terminal just displays the click-and-drool GUI bits, nothing else. For just running an X display server and some rudimentary networking support, 8 MB is *plenty*, not to mention *generous*.

    I've seen enough comments lacking this insight. I hope this explains it. If not, read this and the article *AGAIN*.

    Lather, Rinse, Repeat, until you get it.

  • I would estimate that only about 10% of Windows 3.1 machines ever had video acceleration enabled (even when they had a better card, the install hassles usually meant they were running the 'SVGA' driver).

    So it's quite possible that unaccelerated X seemed no slower than unaccelerated 3.1 on the same machine, but really slow now that you've been spoiled with 6 years of accelerated Windows drivers.
  • ... the Oracle ThinkNIC? I've searched all over the 'net, and keep finding links to old info ("the roo password is 4getit!!!" Wahoo. Like you can't change it by booting editing the iso and reburning), but no links to stuff like "heres what I did, how I did it, and here's the iso for you to download so you don't have to replicate all my hard work. I have the beefy machine to host it, I have the monitor to use, and can quickly string the cable to the part of the house my nic will end up at, but after many nights of both searching and trying myself, I'm about ready to give up. Which would be a shame as I got my nic for free, and I hate to throw away free hardware. Help? Anyone? Anyone?

  • perhaps if i had some rexec scripts setup to run the programs on the xserver from the application server. That way they would just be run local even though over an nfs mount. It may not be super speedy but it should work.

  • Where is a good howto on getting sound to work. I have had an xterminal for some time but have not gotten sound to work. I heard it was possible but didn't know how.

    Another question:

    Is it possable to get accelerated 3d working over a network connection?? I wouldn't think so but it sure would be neet.

  • My favorate platform for a nice lite X terminal is actually an old SPARCstation running something like NetBSD. Sure, it'll probably only do 8 bit color well, but the image quality will be good and you'll get a res of 1152x900. Another advantage of machines like Suns is that you can make them behave more "terminal-like", by running them totally diskless. Net-booting the things is very easy.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    yup, this is why we wrote svncviewer, an SVGA client for VNC. even the lowliest 386 with less than 4MB RAM could become an X terminal. it was small enough to fit into a single-floppy distribution. really useful in university labs with huge numbers of ancient machines.

  • by Anonymous Coward
    XFree really sucks with support for ISA bus and VLB bus cards. Most of those old clunky 486s use ISA and VLB bus. It is a real pisser to see 64K color display in Windows 3.1 but XFree can only do 8 bit 256 colors with the same card. XFree is brain dead with respect to any video card which isn't PCI bus. Some (very few) VLB bus cards can be used for greater than 256 colors with XFree, but only if the address bus on the card and the address bus on the motherboard can handle addresses higher than 16 MB. It is a damn shame that XFree can't make good use out of those old video cards and motherboards. Those oldies can look pretty good under MS Windows, but are a no-show for XFree86.
  • You are right. But unfortunately government wants to put machines in schools. If that is unavoidable, why not put cheap (or free, as in beer) machines like these and spend the money on teachers and books?
  • There is now a port of XFree86 to Cygwin. It's not all that mature... Xeyes doesn't work properly on my laptop...but if you need a Free X for Windows, use it, and I'm sure the team will be grateful for your bug reports.
  • Exactly. X allows me to use my new AMD box out in my fort from my crusty old Cyrix P150+ in the bedroom. It honestly is better than having two computers for the price of one, because the X terminal is much easier to maintain than a second PC. And since the Cyrix machine has a pretty good video card in it I honestly can't hardly tell the difference between sitting down at my actual machine. I even have gotten sound to work (with a little help from Gnome and esd).

  • Yeah, that makes sense. However, it's not too difficult to set up an X terminal using the formual in the article. Heck, I wish that I would have thought about using Debian base system as the base for my X terminals. I rolled my own, and it was quite painful.

    As for your problem trusting your firewall. If your attacker is sniffing packets on your local area network you have bigger problems than the fact that they might eavesdrop on your X session. If that's the case then one of your devices has already been compromised.

    Take care friend.

  • That is perhaps one of the most insightful things that I have ever heard on Slashdot. That was the original reason that I set up an X terminal as well. A buddy of mine was using them in his small business, and he wanted to know if sound would be possible. So I dug up some old hardware and I tried it out (it is).

    When I was done I found that I had something useful for myself as well. Being able to use my fancy computer while I wasn't in my fort was very nice. Being able to introduce my wife to Linux without forcing her to go out into my fort (which she would then require I clean), was even nicer.

    But mostly I did it to see how to do it. Come to think of it that's probably the prime motivation for nearly every piece of software on my home LAN.

    Thanks for the conversation. It seems that every time I despair that /. has gone to the dogs something like this happens and my faith is restored.

  • Why use X, when you can do VNC. Terminal for any platform and you can resume your session from anywhere. []
  • VNC requires relatively speedy machines on both sides of the connection. Have you tried using VNC on a 486 class box? It's close to unusable and you better have a 100Mbit network between endpoints since it's a huuuge bandwidth hogger (hence the increased CPU requirements). X, on the other hand is quite snappy on 10Mbit + 486 hardware.

    If you need to keep "sessions" alive you can try something like the xmove program, available from the Debian repository at least. It lets you migrate X clients from server to server, with some restrictions.

  • Yes there's no disk spinning and with a 486 there's no CPU fan, but there's still the 'gentle hum' of the power supply.

    We've got a few users in our dept with Tektronix X-terminals, and these are silent. They use black box transformer power supplies with no fans. These people value their silence, and would find even the hum of a fan annoying (especially on an old 486 which is going to start rattling and failing pretty soon! New PSU time...). It's hard to concentrate on pure mathematics with any distraction, they tell me!

    So can anyone suggest silent power supplies that can be hooked up to a PC to make a truly silent X terminal? Has anyone done this? Can I just find a transformer with 9V and 5V and enough wattage and hack together a connector to the machine?

    I've actually done the reverse - hacked a single PC power supply to drive three Tek Xterms! Noise wasn't a problem because there are other machines in that lab, but cost was. New Tek PSU's = about £80 = $100 each. Old 486 PSU = £free = $free. Fun hacking power cables off = priceless.


  • Relax, multiple xterms is the only reason Real Geeks run X anyway. ;)
  • There's a simple patch [] you can make to OpenSSH to enable the cipher 'none' (no encryption). I did that to let my PS/2 Model 55SX [] work reasonably for remote X applications, while keeping the familiar ssh interface.

    If you want a 'pure' X terminal with no disk at all, you might as well send the X protocol straight over the network, no ssh involved. But if you have a mixed-use system with some local and some remote stuff, and you have a trusted network that isn't going to be eavesdropped, 'ssh -c none' is pretty neat. You can always go back to Blowfish or 3DES for connecting to stuff outside your local network.

  • So, you're brushing up on your Spanish to go to Brazil. Hmm...

  • We has one fellow here who created an ISO image on a bay-area PC (where we've got the CD burners) and stored the damn thing on his Desktop. Then he wondered why it took him 10 minutes to log on to the machine in his office.
  • a helicopter.

    Now that we've clouded the issue with facts, let's all move along.

    Bad Mojo []
  • Before you buy, be sure to review the model information on the "Linux Laptops page" []

    If your laptop model is not there, I'd think a bit before buying it.
    I've had great success with Linux on a few IBM notebooks (old and newer) with a little help from this website.
    Hope this helps.

  • I created a bootrom and now the X-terminal boots from net. I use FreeBSD.
  • Unless that Dell laptop was in the sub $100 range, you're not even talking about the same thing.
    What he's outlined is how to make good use of hardware that is affordable to almost anyone.
    I once was asked by a non-profit group to help them make use of about 30 donated computers. (Donated by the NSA, no less - Beautiful IBM tempest cases and no hard drives.)
    They had no budget. This would have been perfect for them.
    Sure, in a perfect world, someone is going to donate 30 newish laptops with Wavelan cards, but I'm not going to hold my breath.

    One of the major strong points about the whole Gnu/Linux movement is it's pricetag. Cutting hardware costs can put one more computer in front of one more user, who might not otherwise have a computer to use.
    You really can't see this in a school or an adult training program or at a local library?

    Doesn't anybody appreciate a good hack anymore?

    Jim in Tokyo

    Join the Great Fujisan Expedition! []
  • The progrm I was helping out with was in Southeast Washington, DC - I guess that qualifies as third world...
    I've personally seen Net Cafes with better equipment in Russia and Thailand - since they are often used for online gaming, the spec's are much higher.

    As for giving a bad impression of Linux, I doubt it. I used to use a pretty similar setup to run remote X off a guy's Linux box at my old office. (It was the backup webserver.) On a P90 with 16MB of ram and a 2MB video card, it was surprisingly responsive. KDE looked great at 1024x768x65000. I happily used that for web browsing, since it bypassed the firewall.

    I just think that too many useful PCs get tossed into landfills before their time. This guy's howto could delay that a couple of years.

    Would I want to use one of these as my main PC? Probably not. Would I use one if that was all that was available? In a heartbeat.

    Jim in Tokyo

    Join the Great Fujisan Expedition! []
  • While this is certainly true, that old 486 would be hard pressed to run a more modern distro with KDE or Gnome and all of the bells and whistles that go along with it. On the other hand, my school had a bunch of old color X terminals in a nice quiet compsci lab, and I was able to use them to access my computer in my dorm room and run all of those neat things just fine. While a 486-based X terminal wouldn't be as fast as a more modern pc running the same apps locally(maybe) it certainly would be faster than running all of that stuff on the 486 itself - and thus a pretty decent allocation of otherwise obsolete hardware.
  • Ah... RS232 ports.

    I can't believe people are abandoning support for RS-232 serial ports. I can't connect two computers using three wires and two USB ports. They're useless.

    I fully believe if we ever make contact with an alien race, we will connect our computers via RS-232.
  • LinuxBIOS requires a Disk-On-Chip. I don't think it's possible without it. In addition, I don't think a Disk-On-Chip solution is possible without LinuxBIOS, as the only place you can typically install Flash is in the BIOS slot, and without a BIOS, well, you have to have LinuxBIOS.
  • Five years ago I came upon 3 (then old) labtam CT300 X terminal... Nice machine, 21 inch monitor etcetera. As time goes on the server that they are based on has moved up from a 486 to a pentium 200 (adequate, given enough ram), and will probably soon move up furthur.

    The remarkable thing is, without significant administration, and no spare parts, they are ALL still working (made in about '91 remember) and in use. No software upgrades have come out since the comany stopped making them about 7 years ago, yet they run the latest mozilla, kde etc as fast as the server! Just upgrade the werver and the rest works like magic! (unforuntately enlightenment doesn't work very efficiently as it uses some new fangled x extensions, that are only 5-10 years old.)

    Maybe there is something in this new fangled Network Computer (or hyper new innovative .NET idea) after all.

    Maybe the zero administration, low maintanence claims are true, you just need these!
  • Well I like the Roaming Profile thingy to some extent: it protects the user from losing things due to BSODs and is quite transparent to the user....It's not that transparent to users, since they have to wait quite a time whilist it does it. Let alone the utter mess they end up in if they log into more than one machine at once

    The big problem is the "writing" of the "My Documents" part. (You can redirect it to a mounted "drive" on your samba-server, i know, so it is fixable)

    More to the point "My Documents" stays fixed. Some of the other registry keys Windows will rewrite back to the local HDD, regardless of what you do.
    The problem is that it appears virtually impossible to disable the write back cacheing. (Especially if you want a .POL file examined). Even though it's prefectly possible for Windows to work with everything including Start Menu and USER.DAT only on a network drive.

    Very funny if nearly everyone leaves work at about 17:30.... It nearly takes half an hour to log out! (100Mps network...seen this personally)

    This is hardly "user transparent" :)
  • StarOffice requires 5-10 minutes to load a 373 pages Powerpoint slide

    That is 1.2 seconds a page, how fast does Powerpoint manage it?
  • X on a shared server is not a solution for high performance video games, or even for CPU hogging stuff like hires video playback or Flash playback or Java program.

    Exactly how much corporate IT involves "high performance video games"? Sounds like the all too common confusion of someone's home PC with one used as a tool for actual work. If they need highres video then using a real cable TV network will work far better than trying to hack a computer network into working as one...
  • We then entered a nirvana like state for ten years or so where "dumb terminals" were the order of the day connected to remote servers; very little in the way of administration problems, all software installs under easy and obvious central control,

    Also only needing to be installed a few times, typically once

    net result: stability and satisfied users.

    Also no need to specially shut down an if it breaks then you need someone with the skills of a porter to replace it.

    Along comes the PC and within five years we have a complete organisational nightmare on our hands, no standardisation, users installing all sorts of crap and then blaming central support when it doesn't work, you know the score.

    In addition you have a licencing nightmare, since all these programs have per seat rather than site licences let alone we end up with software apparently designed to be end user installed and virtually impossible to manage centrally!
  • a helicopter.

    Or you could take a large gun fit wings, engines and a cockpit and wind up with an A10...
  • I don't think the re-using of old machinery is done by the common Joe-Sixpack: it will be done by knowledgable people (IT departements, geeks). Imagine: graphics card fried, no problem: some of the old machines will just serve as "organ donors".

    Just because a machine is old does not mean it is useless. Indeed most nations would have no credible defence were it not for machines older than the people operating them. Thousands of people are flying right now in commercial aircraft built before Intel started making 486s. Let alone the number of machines who's design hasn't changed in decades even centuries.

    In your argumentation everyone should be running a AMD Athlon 1.4GHz or a P-IV 1.4Ghz. Now, well: for most work this power is overkill (think secretary using Word, or Manager making a powerpoint presentation).

    Not only is it complete overkill it's wasteful, effectivly they have an expensive machine for generating hot air. (If they need a machine to convert electricty to hot air then there are cheaper options.)

    In your mind everyone should buy a computer every 6 months, which implies migration from one machine to another (data, preferences). This is a lot of work if you have a lot of data, eventually getting used to a new OS.

    Which is very poor business sense, makes about as much sense as a bus company replacing all their busses every year or an airline getting new planes every 18 months.
  • On a side note, it's nice that the *nix's have this graphical server, but if they, and most specifially Linux, are going to make it in the desktop world, X needs to go. It's nothing short of a mess how these graphics card drivers have to deal with communicating between user and kernel space. X is an app, and what we really need is something on the system level to compete in the desktop market.

    If you really think this is an issue there is nothing stopping you writing a standalone X server, which is the only thing which runs on the machine you are using as an X term.
    Indeed this is exactly how machines built as X terms work.
  • that's because X *is* a bandwidth hog. It's certainly powerful and useful, but it is also quite bloated and bandwidth-heavy.

    But nowhere near as much a hog as the Windows "write back" user profile mechanism.
  • Why use X, when you can do VNC.

    Exactly how would you use VNC to set up 20-100 terminals?
  • An X terminal is great for some situations, like a school lab environment, where you have a server machine doing NFS for a bunch of terminals. But, in most situations, a standalone machine is better.

    How is a standalone machine better, you'd be expecting the end user to act as their own sysadmin. (Though if you ran Windows on it this is the situation anyway.)
  • Help stamp out obsolete technology: destroy an older computer.

    So when will you be demolishing your house and car, both of which are far older technology than any computer :)
  • I used to administer a network of Sun workstations. We had a Sparc 1+ (the speed demon of the group, but no graphics card, only serial for a VT220) a Sparc 1, and several Sun4 and Sun3 systems. Only the Sparcs and 5 of the Sun4s
    had hard drives, the rest did all filesystem
    stuff through nfs. The main problem was that the Sun3 computers run m68k processors and therefore would have required an entirely seperate set of applications to run them standalone. That, and the fact that the Sun3s only had 8 MB ram, where we were able to deck out the Sun4s with at least 32 MB and the Sparcs with 16MB. So the Sun3s were X-terminals of Sun4s. Of course our Sun3s only had black and white graphics, but better than not having anything. No one could tell that it was an X-terminal, everything was already so slow :) Those were the days...
  • If you have a sufficiently good machine, you may want to look into WeirdX [] or WiredX []. Both are Java X servers, and at least WeirdX ran surprisingly well for me. WeirdX is GPLed.
  • That depends what you mean by "compress". Just using lbxproxy might be a good compromise.

  • You should try the new ones. The 980's are very cool and realy fast. 80MB ram, 100Mb ethernet, very cool. They blow our older x-terminals (we have about 150 total at work) out of the water.

    Oh, and they can work with Linux too, but ours connect to HP-UX machines (but they run apps off of linux servers).

  • Today's X apps don't run on a 486sx 25 very well.
  • OK, after you've booed yourself hoarse and thrown all the rotten tomatoes you have handy, is there a freely available Windows client for doing this? I'm currently running VNC but that is SLOW. I'm familiar with EXCEED but not willing to pay for it. Everything else I've found is in extreme alpha stages and not usable for daily use.
  • On a side note, it's nice that the *nix's have this graphical server, but if they, and most specifially Linux, are going to make it in the desktop world, X needs to go.
    Have you actually done X programming, or are you just repeating 'common wisdom'.
    It's nothing short of a mess how these graphics card drivers have to deal with communicating between user and kernel space.
    X servers (generally) run as root and have TOTAL access to the graphics hardware. The video driver portion could not possibly run faster, even if it ran in kernel mode. At the same time, since X runs in userland, a wild pointer or lockup stands a good chance of only killing the X server. If it was in the kernel, it would stand a good chance of causing deep file system and data corruption.

    The latter point is not academic. I've actually done debugging on XFree86, and it's a simple kill-edit-compile-restart debugging cycle. Few system crashes, little rebooting.

    X is an app, and what we really need is something on the system level to compete in the desktop market.
    X being an app can actually speed things up. A complex draw that invovles numerous graphics operations can be built up in a buffer, then sent to the X server in one fell swoop. A system-call based architecture like Microsoft Windows generally requires one system call for each graphics primitive, which can be hellishly slow.
    ...and what we really need is something on the system level to compete in the desktop market.
    In a few years, gigabit Ethernet, bazillion polygon/frame graphics cards, and monster Ethernet switches will be ubiquitous and dirt cheap. At that point, the centralized administration benefits of X will be tremendous, and the resource cost will be negligible. Even if X did have the supposed performance penalties today, they don't matter in the long run.
  • I personally don't think it's a huge deal on an internal network if you can trust the people;
    Two points: 1. On a large network, you *can't* trust the people. 2. There will be compromised machines on a large network.
    we've got a switch,
    Switches are somewhat overrated, esp. in an environment of corporate novices. Compromise a box. Use nmap to identify the active netblocks. At the start of each day, agressively ARP as a single box. As soon as somebody tries to login to the box, record their password and stop ARPing. The login won't work, they'll try again and it will work, and they'll write off the failure to the vagaries of computers. A couple of weeks of this, and the organization is 0WN3D.
    Granted, now that I'm looking at reconfiguring everythign to allow outside access to my box, I'm having second thoughts....
    That's why my boxen run SSH.
  • Interrupt handling does not exist at the user level, nor should it.
    Signals could be used, although that would be ugly. ;-) A special lightweight signalling mechanism might be a solution. E.g., you could wake up a sleeping X server when the interrupt occurred. That'd take minimal kernel involvement, and at least for Linux switching to the X server process wouldn't be particularly slower than switching to a kernel timer handler.
    Also, I believe we're talking about two different points here. You are referring more to the interface between the running program and X. I'm talking about the interface to pass data to the graphics card quick and efficiently.
    I was talking about both. For the latter, X is about as fast as possible: it jams the data directly into the video card and twiddles the bits as appropriate. That code is about as fast as possible.
    And by the way, all the 3-D rendering and texturing in the world is not going to speed up 2-D frame based applications...i.e. live video etc...and it's a fact that X does not perform well in this area...
    Triangles, motion compensation, bitblts, whatever. It's all just math. If somebody comes up with a new acceleration mode, just write an X extension for it.
    If you write a video (movie player, etc..) app in Windows and in X. The Direct Show interface to the graphics hardware will win hands down...sorry to say it, I love Linux, but Windows wins that one...
    You've hit the nail on the head, sort of. Ugly as they are, the Windows multimedia timers and real-time priorities rock for audio and video. The problem is not userland vs. kernel, it is that Linux has historically been optimized for good batch-mode performance and processor sharing. Windows goes to great efforts to schedule processes *exactly* when they want to be scheduled, and allows them to coopt the entire system if they want to. These are diametric opposites.

    I think it's really just a matter of time. Linux has only been a serious desktop contender for a couple of years, whereas Microsoft has been one since the early 80s and Gates's dream of 'a computer on every desk' (remember that catchphrase?). Linux/XFree86 multimedia stuff has so far had a few tens of millions of dollars spent on it; hundreds of millions has been spent on Windows. Hell, it's just in the past couple of years that the video card vendors have started actually cooperating with XFree86. Honestly, if we were willing to spend a couple of billion on X and throw it away three or four times over a period of about eight years, it would reach Window's state of performance: fast but inflexible. I'm willing to settle for steady progress and flexibility.

  • I'd suggest doing a nfs mount of your apps so they can run on the PC...on a intranet, it should be pretty cool.

    This offloads processing power to the node -- a very, very good thing.

    Another alternative would be java apps through a browser w/ the plugin.

    This would give you a taste of the "Java Platform" -- central app servers and nodes that process applications downloaded/maintained on demand to network PCs -- something that Sun envisioned some 8 years ago and Microsoft is currently implementing with .NET, C# and whatever the X-box ends up morphing into.

    Treatment, not tyranny. End the drug war and free our American POWs.
  • The point of terminals like this is to have access to your computer from another room - you might want to get mozilla in your living room without bringing 4K$ of hardware with it. It isn't about sharing your computer with 200 people you don't even know.
  • Using the floppy drive to boot the system is pathetic. There are several other options, any one of these would be a better, more reliable boot system:

    • DiskOnChip [](basically flash that looks like an IDE hard drive, usually used for embedded systems, hence the DIP package. Probably expensive.
    • A small (8MB or smaller is fine) CompactFlash card. CompactFlash presents itself to the system as an IDE drive interface. So all you have to do is load a bootable filesystem on it.
    • A network card that can boot from a LAN. 3Com cards (even the $30 ones) can do this. Many other cards can too. You'll need to figure out how to configure a BOOTP and TFTP servers on your Linux server to get this to work.
    • Possibly the cheapest option (if your motherboard permits it) is to use LinuxBIOS [] to actually put a full Linux kernel into the flash memory already on your motherboard, replacing the BIOS. Presumably, you would build a kernel that supports your network card, so all you would have to do is pass the "root=/dev/nfs,nfsroot=serverip:/dir" option to the kernel at boot time.

    Oh yeah, any of these would be faster than reading a kernel image from a floppy disk. Also the machine would be less vulnerable to tampering.


  • Excellent points. Actually, I do remember (dimly...I've had some wine tonight) running top on the 486, and it was pretty much all X and's been a few months (since upgraded the 486 running X over Ethernet to a 200MHz Pentium running apps directly) since running the configuration I mentioned in the post. But yeah, I think you're right: the compression & enryption asked too much. The main reason I went w/SSH was because of the easy setup of X forwarding. Well, that and a certain paranoia about the firewall I'm running my computers behind...might as well be safe rather than sorry, right?
  • Hm...fair point, but I was thinking more about the programming side of thing...not necessarily the same as what you're mentioning.

    It's all well and good to say don't reinvent the wheel, or read the howtos, but how do you get to learn about not only how to do something but all the pitfalls in doing so other than by doing the thing yourself and by screwing up in the process?

  • Shucks...I'm blushing.

    But I agree: doing something just to see how to do it is important. Sometimes you need to reinvent the wheel just so you can see how someone ever came across the whole idea of "round" in the first place.

  • This is how the Unix labs at the University of Queensland's CS school were setup until the end of last year (they now use "true" hardware-basd xterms AFAIK). The difference was that our xterms were truly dumb; they only ran the X server, everything else ran on a single dual-SPARC box (I think) and piped its output over the network to the relevant terminal.

    Worked really well, unless you tried using it the day before a concurrent/communicating processes assignment was due...

  • Dont make X trolls out of your old ACs.
    Destroy your old AC -- render them permanently inoperative so no one else will have to put up with old obsolete trolling.

    Obsolete trolling holds us ALL back! Destroy old ACs!

    Modern day ACs shouldnt have "legacy" (old crap) relic features like sporks, hot grits, Heidi Wall or Natalie Portman posts, or DOS text mode FP's. These features are obsolete, and make ACs slower, less stable, and more costly.

    Help stamp out obsolete trolling: destroy an older AC. The tech support workers of the world will thank you.

  • Now, you sound like someone who did the DOS -> Win311 -> Win9x -> W2K path (except for the comment you compiled the Linux kernel on a 386, but I doubt that, I suspect a Troll you know). No harm done, so did I. Just about a year and a half ago (seems ages to me) I started to experiment with Linux. Separate partition of my P-III/384Meg desktop and pure Linux on my laptop (P120/32Meg). You know....just for experimenting. Real work(tm) was done under W2K.
    But fortuna was not with me: three weeks ago my workstation screen got busted (power-supply, *urks*). Then I remembered (well, I use it every day at work) that X-Terms could be used instead of logging in locally to the machine. It was some (slow, on the P120) surfing to find a HOW-TO and some hours of fiddling. I'm sure it is not the *best* setup aound, but it works. Everything is fast on my P-III and the P120 doesn't even swap when working.
    Could I have done this with a Windows solution? Probably...but not without buying third party software (okay, I know about flames needed). At least, I can do everything I need. X-terminals "converted" me: as soon as I have my screen back, I think I'll have some partitions to kill (or at least know for the games *grin*)
    See, so your so called "old technology" saved me from buying a new screen for the month the repair takes (yup, that's what they said at the shop...lazy worthless bunch!) and my work is done. Neat, isn't it?

    Oh, and what goes for the comment about "bad video cards" in 486 machines. Ehm, it doesn't have to be the latest NVidia GeMaxiForce 3000. You know it is 2D most of the time, so think more like an older Matrox PCI card (very good in 2D!), with 8Meg video RAM you can easily display 1600x1200@24bit...My monitor doens't even do that.

  • Have to agree on this one: Peanut is an excellent distro for older machines. I run the 8.4 right now on an older P120/32Meg....with KDE2 it slacks a bit now, but with KDE it worked really fine (not even swap was used!). And as an X-term, it works like a dream.
  • Insighful? Flamebait at most!
    Recycling old machines for more apropriate tasks is a noble cause IMHO. You give opportunities to people with a lesser income. Not everyone is able to buy a 1000$ machine (where I live, that's the about price of a low-end new machine) Don't count on second-hand machines (think P-II), they are in comparison overpriced to the new machines.

    I'm not a tree-hugger, but think about the waste that is in older computers. Modern machines are built a bit more with environment-issues in mind (more easy to recyle the components), but older machines weren't at all. So dumping those machines just makes toxic landfill (lead for example) Of course, you can still argue that old machines use much more electricity.

    I don't think the re-using of old machinery is done by the common Joe-Sixpack: it will be done by knowledgable people (IT departements, geeks). Imagine: graphics card fried, no problem: some of the old machines will just serve as "organ donors".

    In your argumentation everyone should be running a AMD Athlon 1.4GHz or a P-IV 1.4Ghz. Now, well: for most work this power is overkill (think secretary using Word, or Manager making a powerpoint presentation). In your mind everyone should buy a computer every 6 months, which implies migration from one machine to another (data, preferences). This is a lot of work if you have a lot of data, eventually getting used to a new OS. I'd say: think again. A lot of people (even a lot of geeks) prefer to see a computer as an investment over a longer time. For me this period of time is 5 years. 1 year Top-machine, 2 years mid-machine and 3 years low-end machine. I am gratefull for 486 firewalls/router at home, and if I can get hold on another a nice fileserver will be implemented. Obsolete doens't mean just means a bit more work (and fun) to continue to use it.

  • The only thing keeping me so far from doing this kind of thing has been the time. I know it's not real expensive, but finding the hardware, then doing the actual setup is pretty slow going. Especially since you want to make sure you get everything right the first time.
  • "The bad thing is that most 486 didn't have good videocards, and the performance (no XAA?) of XFree86 with ISA cards is not great, even as an X-terminal only."

    This kind of thing bothers me. In 95 I did a Linux install which I moved a 486/25 from Win 3.1 to Linux. Back then you did these things the hard way, compiling it yourself.

    We did this to use as, you guessed it, an X-Term for our Vaxes. Then, Xwin ran perfectly (8MB ram, i beleive), no gnome, no kde, just an X-term..

    This raises the question...Why would XFree give bad performance TODAY on the same hardware, or is it just a matter of perceptions based of a preconceived notion of what good performace is?

  • you know, my more unixy friends have been extolling the wonders of xwindows to me for years, and i just started playing around with it recently. fun stuff.

    anyhow, i'm using an old powermac 5200 as a combination tv/mp3 player/xterm for the bedroom. if you're interested, i wrote a brief document [] on how i set everything up. please be kind - it's a cable modem.

  • Let's see... Besides x.html [], there's X-Win32 [], WinaXe [], and MI/X" []

    If you run VNC over SSH compression I find it to be a decent soultion. I usually use the viewer with the -bgr233 (xvncviewer) or restrict pixels to 8-bot (for windows).

    Someone on the rdesktop [] mailing list mentioned creating a RDP server for UNIX, similar to the VNC server. How well it works, if it works with MS RDP clients, and where to find more information I do not know.

    Lastly, Citrix [] has created versions of MetaFrame for Solaris 2.6, 7, and 8 on SPARC and 7 and 8 on x86, AIX 4.3.3, and HP-UX 11.0. Too bad they don't do Linux.
  • Oh man, forgot that cygwin [] has ported a x-server []

    MicroImages (MI/X) have a list of products that compete with MI/X.
  • Dude... I, too, am a time-traveller who remembers the nirvana-like experience of leaving my punch card machine and paper-tape machine for the simplicity of a terminals and, eventually, desktop PCs.

    While having all that power on your desk is seductive, it's been a management nightmare in large organizations. Given the choice between managing software distribution to 10,000 PCs versus 10,000 net-terminals (sucking from a few servers), I'll scrap the PCs anyday!!

    Unfortunately, the net-terminal evolution has not been very successful for typical corporate-drone environments. This is why the PC software industry has worked semi-hard at making PC management more net-terminal-like - think Novell ZEN, Windoze terminals, etc.

  • I have yet to see a LTSP article here on slashdot. The K12LTSP story was okay but it was not phrased in such as way that people would flock to help ltsp development. the only reason i went to #ltsp was because i saw it in Linux Journal and went to the website (
  • Well... It was deliberately configured that way. The system's primary function was to stream MP3s to the world, but *not* to the school. (They weren't blocked or anything; but no in the school would really have a chance to listen, aside from maybe the administration, who would most likely not take kindly to Korn...)

    I think security was also a concern; if his box running the default RedHat install was compromised, he wouldn't leave the school wide open for massive exploits.

  • You can tunnel X traffic over SSH; although I got the impression that his network is no longer setup in this manner.

    I personally don't think it's a huge deal on an internal network if you can trust the people; I use telnet on some of my internal 'boxen' - we've got a switch, and if someone's smart enough to get through my firewall and run a packet sniffer, then they can probably see that I've done nothing to secure any of the computers. Granted, now that I'm looking at reconfiguring everythign to allow outside access to my box, I'm having second thoughts....

  • a helicopter

    I know that's true, but I think the original quote was made by some general well before helicopters were a big deal. It just sounded cool.

    Anyway, a laptop is actually more like a helicopter than an ancient 486 is. :)

  • There's nothing I like better than doing things dirt cheap; I still run a 486 for certain tasks. However, your point works best in the third world.

    If you install a bunch of 486s running Linux in the local library in the US, its just going to give Linux a bad name and turn people off, especially if see they ever see of a modern computer running Windows. These people won't have the technical context to make a fair comparison.

  • another tank.

    Likewise, the best way to remotely use a good computer is another good computer; not some POS 486 that should be used as a firewall. (Along with its 16-bit ISA 512K 800x600 graphics card and a fuzzy dim monitor.)

    I use a laptop that I got cheap from the Dell factory outlet for this purpose. It is big and heavy with a huge, bright display and a relatively wimpy Celeron processor. I stuck a wavelan card in it and loaded most everything from the Red Hat 7.1 distro on it. No special installation steps needed.

    I run web browsing and similar tasks locally (with snappy performance), and I use it as an X-terminal for editing and other tasks that need to use the files on my main machine. It works untethered anywhere in the house, too, due to the wireless network. (Don't forget to use ssh to start X sessions since the 802.11 encryption is "questionable".)

  • "The rest of the world has MOVED ON"? Actually, I'd be more inclined to saying that MOST of the world is still waiting to own their first PC. Do someone a favour and give them your old PC and show them how to use it. If the average /.er is like me, they know AT LEAST one person who, for whatever reason, doesn't have enough disposable income to buy one. If nothing else, it'll give you the warm-fuzzies.
  • So what? There was alo Oracle and the NC. Sun tried to launch java machines. Those things never took off, but those kinds of things will always reappear when the market gets it. I am sure many ridiculed Apple for the Newton after it flopped. Now you have a whole industry selling similar devices. The newton was just a bit early, and people didn't know that they needed it.

    I could imagine one perfectly good use for cheap X terminals, and that's where money and computers are scarce. You could equip a complete computer lab in a 3.d world high school. Spend money on a fast, decent server, and set up obsolete HW as xterminals. Instead of the lab having 3-4 machines and kids getting one hour of use per week, it now has 20 machines, and the kids get 5 hours per week.

  • Total access, ummm not quite..Interrupt handling does not exist at the user level, nor should it. Frame buffer flipping apps have performance problems due to piece-meal half user, half kernel graphics drivers. Also, I believe we're talking about two different points here. You are referring more to the interface between the running program and X. I'm talking about the interface to pass data to the graphics card quick and efficiently. And by the way, all the 3-D rendering and texturing in the world is not going to speed up 2-D frame based applications...i.e. live video etc...and it's a fact that X does not perform well in this area... If you write a video (movie player, etc..) app in Windows and in X. The Direct Show interface to the graphics hardware will win hands down...sorry to say it, I love Linux, but Windows wins that one...
  • Be nice if details on setting up an ssh link between the two were included so that:

    1. The X link is compressed.
    2. The X link is encrypted.

    That way we'd have the ultimate fast/secure connection, and it'd be a lot handier for folks that want to use their X Terminal from anywhere on the 'net...

    Generally, a good article though. Note the age of the author - good stuff!
  • I did something similar with a 486/33 (20M ram) and a Cyrix P150+ (64M ram) without ssh, and it worked great. It wasn't slow at all. In fact, it was so much like actually sitting down at the Cyrix that it was spooky. My guess is that the latency added by compressing (and encrypting) your session killed your performance. Compression really only helps over low bandwidth links. If you aren't maxing out your pipe, you shouldn't be compressing your traffic.

    I don't suppose you ran top on your 486 to see how badly your processor was swamped. My 486 would get to 100% processor utilization just running X. With the compression and encryption my guess is that you just asked to much of your client.

  • by FiDooDa ( 23111 ) on Wednesday June 27, 2001 @07:04PM (#123999)
    I liked this better: []
    especially the nice script.
  • by quartz ( 64169 ) <> on Wednesday June 27, 2001 @08:46PM (#124000) Homepage
    I used this kind of setup in a project at some company I worked for one time, to support the warehouse management application I had written (*please* don't ask why a warehouse management app needed X... thank you). Beefed-up server (multi-processor, RAID, the works) and 10 diskless terminals w/ remote boot and root via NFS. And RedHat Linux 6.2.

    Worked like a charm. The terminals were all cheapo 133 MHz AMD's with S3 graphics cards, worthless for pretty much anything else. Did so well as X terminals, they are still using them today. Of course, they were all on 100 Mb Ethernet though...
  • by guisar ( 69737 ) on Wednesday June 27, 2001 @07:13PM (#124001) Homepage
    I did this with Linux 1.X- hooked a bunch of PCs up to be X terminals for our SGI. Worked swimmingly and really cut down my workload. Everything was great until some dork in Network operations found out we were using X11 across the "enterprise network". I learned something very important during the week following this revelation- X terminals are like Unix- they suffer from a bad name.

    Cook up something like the SunRay- give it a funky LCD display (not included) and tie it to some proprietary server software and everyone thinks it's great. Do the same thing with X and "it's a bandwidth hog", "user's will never be able to figure it out" and on and on.

    Non- Unix users don't give a damn about the power of X. They don't get why it's useful or appreciate the advantages. They like things they have to pay extra for or tie them down to a specific architecture- we in turn don't understand them or this attitude.

    So, I did this in my house. My Cyrix 200MHZ became an X terminal for my kids to play tuxracer and cruise the net. Just don't tell them what's going on. Sell it at work the same way- don't say squat- just do it and spend the extra money on cool toys.

  • by sigwinch ( 115375 ) on Wednesday June 27, 2001 @10:09PM (#124002) Homepage
    Everything was great until some dork in Network operations found out we were using X11 across the "enterprise network". I learned something very important during the week following this revelation- X terminals are like Unix- they suffer from a bad name.
    X terminals are like telnet: less than total security competence, or a momentary brain fart, and a sniffer gets your passwords. If you're a sysadmin, the organization is screwed. Random people doing remote logins gives me the heeby-jeebies.
    Non- Unix users don't give a damn about the power of X. They don't get why it's useful or appreciate the advantages.
    They don't know about the power of X. All they've ever seen is Microsoft Windows on the console. Let them play with VNC or Terminal Server, though, and you'll make them true believers.
  • by autechre ( 121980 ) on Wednesday June 27, 2001 @08:24PM (#124003) Homepage
    The first is at the Retriever Weekly, the college newspaper for UMBC. We have 3 P-90s w/ 16M RAM and S3 virge cards running as X-terminals from a P-II 300 w/ 128M RAM. It works great; they run KDE, StarOffice, Mozilla, etc. with no troubles. The same machines were unusable with Win98 on them.

    The second is in a volunteer computer lab in Baltimore city at the Agape house ( Most of the machines there are 486s with 16M RAM, so they use IceWM and work just fine from a dual Celeron 400 w/ 256M RAM. Jeff Covey, the main person behind this lab, has set them up to netboot using the Linux Terminal Server Project ( The difference in noise level between 8 486s running with and without hard drives is very noticable! I'm hoping to set up the machines at the newspaper this way soon.

    Sotto la panca, la capra crepa
  • by geoffrey crawford ( 205910 ) on Wednesday June 27, 2001 @09:54PM (#124004) Homepage
    I'm posting this on a 486DX2/66 with 16 megs of RAM and a 1MB VESA video card...

    It runs Xfree 4.. and uses esound for sound across the network

    These things works great. My sister uses one, and I have a second so I can kill X when it locks up my good computer (which the X terms run their apps on)

    If you can stomach 640x480 at 8bit... a 386 will do that fine too!

    Beauty of these is the sound level... jam the fan in your 486's powersupply, and it's 100% silent!

    Using config files based on MAC adresses works really great too. The machine boots, and checks if it has an existing X config file named as it's MAC address. If not, it runs xf86config, gets you to set the initial settings, and saves it for future use.

    A p150 with a good video card, even on 10Mbit feels like the local machine. It's really nice.
  • by Tech187 ( 416303 ) on Thursday June 28, 2001 @07:46AM (#124005)
    Back in the day when 3/486 machines were more expensive and there were tons of 286 boxes readily at hand, I used to experiment a lot with TCP/IP networking using 286 boxes running DOS with Microsoft's LanManager Client (still available for free at Microsoft, btw.) connecting to Samba shares and telnetting into my cherished Linux (1.0 and 1.2 kernel) box from all around the house. 3C501 10base2 ethernet cards (eeek!) were $2.50 a pound at the local surplus store and life was grand.

    It seemed to me at the time that what was really needed was a good, free X Terminal package to run on older boxes themselves not capable of running Linux.

    These days, '486 hardware is the 'low end' and it might not be as important as it once was to use the really slow boxes (they're a waste of electricity to leave on, some would say) but it seems like ridiculous overkill to run a Linux kernel on something as simple as an X Terminal. The services running can be cut way back, etc. but it's still overkill for the machine to need a processor with Memory management (386 or greater) when even simpler hardware should work fine.
  • by salty_oz ( 457779 ) on Wednesday June 27, 2001 @07:09PM (#124006)
    Over a local Ethernet LAN (which I assume this was done on) using SSH compression would probably slow things down.

    There's a trade off between network latency and compression latency. The general rule we use around here is if the link speed is over a few Mbps then compression ain't worth it.

  • by ikekrull ( 59661 ) on Wednesday June 27, 2001 @07:01PM (#124007) Homepage
    Theres nothing quite like the horror of running X on a 2MB M68000-powered black & white NCD X Terminal.

    the 19" monochrome monitor looks cool in an old-skool way, but its unbelieveably slow.

    After i bought this machine, i was hit with the shocking realisation that i am indeed a hopeless *NIX geek, and there is no going back.

  • by joq ( 63625 ) on Wednesday June 27, 2001 @07:07PM (#124008) Homepage Journal

    You can download STunnel [] and do this on your own, it's definitely not a hard task to do.
  •'s my experience w/that very setup:

    Had a 486dx33, 16mb of ram, don't rem. the video card but it was 2mb of ram; ssh'ing into a 90 MHz pentium, 48mb of ram. The 486 was used by my wife (just got married, and boy does that word sound weird) to run Netscape, mainly, w/IceWM as a nice low-end WM.

    What we found was that it was pretty slow, actually. We'd done a full install of Debian onto the 486, so we didn't have to use NFS or bootp or the like. I'd say 75% of the time she was the only one running X on my computer (the 90 MHz Pentium), so it wasn't like my underpowered box was trying to run two servers/clients (can't rem. the proper terminology right now) at the same time. And the two computers were connected w/10Mb/s Ethernet cables. But...

    Well, we found it was slow: slow to display new pages (ADSL connection at home, so bandwidth wasn't the problem), slow to display new pages, and slow in general. I would listen to my computer run while she loaded pages, and there wasn't a lot of swapping, so I don't think it was that. If I had to guess at the bottleneck I would say it was running SSH on a 486 (one other thing: we were running ssh -c blowfish, so the cipher used would be less processor intensive).

    That said, can anyone else offer any insight here?

  • If your attacker is sniffing packets on your local area network you have bigger problems than the fact that they might eavesdrop on your X session.

    Excellent point. However -- and this is a broader point than merely this article -- I wanted to learn how to do this sort of thing. There's a constant urging in Unix circles not to reinvent the wheel -- yet how do you ever learn to do something other than by trying to reinvent the wheel?

  • by Karpe ( 1147 ) on Wednesday June 27, 2001 @07:27PM (#124011) Homepage
    ...for these X terminals would be to be put in public schools here in Brazil. Some public schools don't have even a single PC. If we could make people donate their old hardware to these schools, and buy a powerfull machine as the server, we could make some computer labs, and better, introduce young people to GNU/Linux. Here in my state, in the south of Brazil, public schools are already using preferentialy GNU/Linux, but that's another story.

    But the people who should know how to do this are the responsibles for the schools' machines, most of the slashdot crowd had already thought and learned how to do that.

    The bad thing is that most 486 didn't have good videocards, and the performance (no XAA?) of XFree86 with ISA cards is not great, even as an X-terminal only. I remember the performance of XFree with my Trident VLB, which sucked, even for that time. The only nice card in a 486 with XFree I used was a S3 VLB, but those are hard to find, even used, of course.

    It would also be great if those IDE "disks" based on flash memory were cheaper. We could make very silent, self-sufficient (no network or floppy boot) machines. The devices don't even need a large memory, or "disk". Good to make some "NCs" (fancy name for something that exists for at least 10 years in the X world :) )
  • by SumDeusExMachina ( 318037 ) on Wednesday June 27, 2001 @07:01PM (#124012) Homepage
    Well, I don't know about some of you people (I heard somewhere that the average age of the Slashdot poster is around 15), but I remeber back in the day when we had to use terminals to use a computer at all. Yup, those were the days allright. Worrying about getting your processes killed for taking up too much CPU time, running up massive bills for computer time, etc.

    I thought that we had gotten away from this by the early '90s when PCs became common and powerful enough that you could operate relatively comfortably without the support of some big iron. After all, wasn't the whole big-iron-to-desktop transition about self-empowerment? I thought so, because I didn't have to worry about pissing off some sysop when I compiled my newest Linux kernel on my 386 with 8 megs of RAM.

    But now we have this crap about creating X terminals now. Don't we learn anything? We have all immensely enjoyed the personal freedom accorded to us by having enough local processing power to get the job done, no matter how many times the remote server crashes and burns. Besides, I have better ways to allocate my network's bandwidth than with a ton of X packets. Like, say, playing Quake III or browsing the web, or transfering files to my Windows 98 box from my NT server.

    Plus, we are confronted with the fact that 486s probably won't have very nice video cards to begin with, so you can pretty much kiss a decent-looking display goodbye.

In seeking the unattainable, simplicity only gets in the way. -- Epigrams in Programming, ACM SIGPLAN Sept. 1982