General Question

the100thmonkey's avatar

Can you recommend an operating system or application for PC time-sharing?

Asked by the100thmonkey (11225points) May 6th, 2010


I work for a small school where I am the academic manager as well as the IT manager.

We’re looking at buying ~20 computers for the use of the students both informally and for ICT-based learning under the supervision of a teacher.

The problem:

Computers are expensive! Computers use lots of electricity! Computers need to be insured!

I’d like to investigate a multi-user timeshare set-up where one CPU is accessed by multiple users on multiple accounts at the same time through separate input devices.

I’ve done some searching and found Userful, but haven’t been able to find anything else that looks even remotely attractive.

So, has anyone used Userful? If so, can you give me details about it including end-user experience and any problems you ran into? If you haven’t used it, have you used anything similar? Can you recommend any other systems like a decent, responsive thin client? Do you know of any other efficient, cheap solutions that I’ve not mentioned?


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8 Answers

Tobotron's avatar

I’ve seen other tec that does what Userful does but Userful seems to be the cheapest without having to mod the host station too much…I really don’t know why more academic institutions don’t make better use of this technology.

I would wonder if it would be cheaper for you to buy the system without the OS and use a Linux offering such as Ubuntu it would save you on software costs too not to mention be a lot less strain on your host PC considering your running 1 into 10…

I think setting up a thin client will cost you alot more than the approach you’ve found not to mention a litle trickier to maintain and poor peripheral support etc.

the100thmonkey's avatar

Thanks @Tobotron – would I be able to achieve something similar with a distro like Edubuntu? I’m pretty comfortable with Linux although I’m by no means a guru, and would be hapy to learn.

jerv's avatar

Linux in general is pretty much made for this sort of stuff. Given that you can get “recycled” PCs for next to nothing and any Linux distro you want for just the time it takes to download it, I am leaning toward the Ubuntu world myself here. You also won’t be limited to 10m cables; I don’t know the layout of where you plan to set up this lab, but that may be an issue that you won’t face if you use a bunch of old PCs linked by standards CAT5 cables.

Also, Userful is limited to 10 clients max, less then the ~20 you need. It likely takes a hell of a performance hit when doing so too unless you have a kick-ass main system. I think that if you ran a Core i5, you might get clients that are comparable to a netbook.

By way of comparison, my last system was an Athlon XP 3200+ with 2GB or RAM (A little weak by modern standards, but more than adequate for educational use and far better than one-tenth of a system like the one I now have) that I picked up for $50. Granted, I had to use my old monitor and keyboard/mouse, but those items are not included with Userful either so you’d have to buy those anyways.

Also, with Userful, it looks like you’d have to buy video cards too… and many current PCs don’t have enoug of the right type of slots to handle that. My old box had five PCI slots (but they haven’t made PCI video cards in years) and one AGP slot—(though it’s getting hard to find AGP video cards these days too). My current system has only PCI-Express slots, only one of which can take a PCI-E video card.

The more I see, the better a cheap Linux box looks.

@Tobotron If you set up the host right, it should pretty much take care of itself. That said, no system is ever maintenance-free. Trying to get a system that needs no babysitting is a bad idea if you like things like reliability, performance, or features. If you can’t take on the job of sysadmin then either find someone who can or don’t bother with your own network, because there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

Vincentt's avatar

I recall having seen an article in the Dutch c’t computer magazine on using Ubuntu to allow multiple persons to use the same PC, so it should be possible with that.

xu's avatar

Ubuntu does not do multiseat out of the box, yes with a brilliant tech, some luck on the video card choices, and a lot of patience and time you might be able to get something to work—but you’ll end up paying more for the hardware as you won’t be able to use low-cost video cards as you would with Userful. Userful has a free trial, and is not very expensive (software costs less way less than the electricity you’ll be saving), so I’d suggest going that route (it is comparatively painless and a great solution). We use it ourselves in the office here and it “just works”.

jerv's avatar

@xu I can tell that you are exaggerating. Considering the cost of electricity to run a modestly powerful system and the average cost per KWh of electricity, it’d take at least a year and probably closer to 2–3 years to pay for itself, so that cost comparison you cite is invalid.

And how do you address the video card issue? Put another way, how many video cards can you cram into a single expansion slot? Or do you use a computer that is at least two generations behind the times and thus actually has enough slots to load enough video cards to actually get 10 users? The only other way I can see is to use an expensive server as opposed to a normal PC that would more than negate any financial savings.

I still am not seeing Userful as a good thing. Maybe if I saw it in person then I might trust it.

the100thmonkey's avatar

@jerv: I don’t intend to run 10 terminals from one machine – probably 5 or so over three or four machines – I should have made that clear.

Most modern motherboards have at least two (sometimes three) PCI slots, and I know you’re exaggerating about the availability of PCI graphics cards.

On reflection, though, I might just suggest a leasing option. Less hassle that way.

jerv's avatar

@the100thmonkey Do not confuse PCI with PCI Express ;)

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