Multi-Head, Multi-User Killer GNU/Linux App Languishes

The year of the GNU/Linux desktop has been always right around the corner for many years now. Many have been looking for the ‘killer application’ that can only be had on GNU/Linux and that will spur widespread adoption of Linux on the desktop. While fast-booting Splashtop desktops look promising, one killer application boldly going where Windows cannot go is languishing. That killer application is…

Multi-head, multi-user systems running off a single PC. This is where multiple displays, keyboards and mice can be attached to a single PC with multiple users all working simultaneously from one system unit. This can dramatically lower the cost of an individual workstations as well as the cost to support individual workstations. This setup is becoming more and more viable as hardware power increases. What’s more, Windows is much less compelling with this setup since Microsoft is so dependent upon 1 user 1 license to keep its revenue stream going and/or needing 3rd party applications such as Citrix or VMware.

Hospitals need large numbers of workstations to be effectively computerized. A multi-head, multi-user GNU/Linux system would be ideal for deployment in health care settings due to its small footprint and low cost.

Yet it is the author’s experience that such a killer application setup is very difficult to achieve with current GNU/Linux. In fact, total failure has so far been the result after many hours of attempts. Two popular distributions and 2 releases of those distributions where attempted: Ubuntu 8.04 hardy heron, Ubuntu 8.10 Intrepid Ibex beta, Fedora 9 and Fedora 10 beta. All failed miserably.

This was not for lack of documentation. In fact, there is so much forum postings and documentation that it is difficult to find relevant information and appears to be mass confusion. What is found is either grossly out of date, applies to old versions of X-Windows or is current and up to date, applies to your distribution but simply does not work. Even more frustrating is the values-compromising nVidia ‘restricted’ (proprietary) drivers did not work on any of the distributions attempted!

My setup was as follows: AMD sempron processor, ECS motherboard, 1 Gb of RAM, 3 nVidia GeForce FX 5200 PCI video cards. No amount of massaging or configuration could get the video drivers to work with multiple displays. The ‘restricted’ nVidia drivers resulted in a strangely behaving boot up that failed in the text part of Fedora 9 boot. Ubuntu had other problems that are so far insurmountable. I have so far put at least 20 hours into getting this to work without success.

While Gnome 2.24 is supposed to have built-in support for multi-headed systems, both Ubuntu 8.10 beta and Fedora 10 beta did not have this working on my system.

I have spent countless hours over the last 8 years getting and occasionally succeeding in getting multi-headed displays working with GNU/Linux. The experience has been universally difficult, daunting and time-consuming. What’s more is that the parameters for X-windows configuration have changed frequently and dramatically over the years rendering old xorg.conf files, the hard-won documentation of such files and Google searches for information nearly useless shortly after it is created. A current xorg.conf files bears little resemblance to ones that I created a few years ago for my multi-headed system, rendering my previous difficult experience in doing this utterly in vain.

While there is some hope for the future with Gnome 2.24, this does not look as though it will be viable soon. Although this should ‘merely’ be a software problem, it has so far proven to be a daunting one. This long and painful process of attempting to prototype multi-head, multi-user systems in our hospital may have to be abandoned in favor of further, forced, expenditures on the Windows platform. The year of the GNU/Linux desktop killer application still does not appear to be here.

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