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Making A Easy-To-Setup $50 Linux Multi-Seat Computer

Michael Larabel

Published on 1 May 2012
Written by Michael Larabel
Page 1 of 3 - 33 Comments

While it's improved a lot recently, in the past setting up a multi-seat computer has been a pain in the ass with a lot of manual configurations needed and other peculiar steps to get the hardware/software combination working right. What if the process were a lot simpler? What if new seats could be added to a computer at a very low cost and the setup was effectively "out of the box" to the point that it's truly plug-and-play? Well, we are now effectively at that point on the Linux desktop and there is a new Kickstarter effort to help in that initiative.

In between visits to the Valve Software office last week in Bellevue (see Valve's Gabe Newell Talks Linux Steam Client, Source Engine, A Video Of The Source Engine On Ubuntu Linux, and A Special Linux Delivery At Valve Software, a former Phoronix contributor (Adam Kadzban) and I stopped by the Plugable office that was only a few minutes away. I had received an invitation to stop by Plugable from the company's founder, Bernie Thompson. At first it didn't sound like it would be particularly exciting since the company is just an Amazon-based retailer of various USB devices from keyboards to USB hubs, but it wound up being much more interesting than anticipated. Aside from seeing Tux on the Plugable's home-page and the mention of "open source", they're doing some very interesting things with their products when it comes to multi-seat computing.

Prior to founding Plugable, Bernie Thompson worked for S3 Graphics, IBM, Microsoft, and DisplayLink. In fact, he is the one that has been involved with the open-source Linux support for the DisplayLink USB GPUs and is the DisplayLink FB kernel driver maintainer for Linux. Checking out the DisplayLink USB graphics hardware at Plugable was interesting enough, but the timing was right and they happen to be launching a Kickstarter project this morning. Being announced today on Kickstarter is the "Plugable Multiseat Terminal: The $50 Computer." This open hardware project is based around a USB-based hardware device with DisplayLink graphics. This USB device uses fully open-source software with no sort of blobs but what it allows is to connect the device to a host PC and to then connect a USB keyboard and mouse to the device along with a monitor. When doing so, you can instantly have a new multi-seat running. Right now with Fedora 17 this is all "out of the box" where as soon as you connect all of the hardware, it is supported and a GDM instance will immediately appear on the new computing seat. From there, you can immediately log-in and start engaging in the Linux desktop experience. It is now live on Kickstarter and below is the video introduction.

Multiple Plugable devices can be plugged into a single computer to have any number of seats you want (well, up to 127 as that's the USB limit). Off a single computer (powered by a mere Intel Core i5 2400 and integrated Sandy Bridge graphics and 3GB of system memory) at the Plugable office, there were eight seats from eight Plugable devices and this was actually their production office setup... Their entire office computer system with eight seats being powered by a single Core i5 system. With Fedora 17, the DisplayLink chipset inside the Plugable Multiseat Terminal immediately lights up by using the DisplayLink frame-buffer driver (though the DisplayLink KMS driver will end up succeeding this FB driver in the mainline kernel) and thanks to systemd and GDM improvements, the connected USB keyboard/mouse is associated with that seat, and everything is good to go. This works already with Fedora 17 beta except for needing to update some packages, but this will all be merged in time for Fedora 17 final. For other distributions, some manual steps may be needed until they pull in all of the latest updated packages that make this lucid multi-seat computing experience possible. The Plugable Multiseat Terminal goes through just about 2.5 Watts (it's powered off a single USB port, though there's a higher-end model that does require an AC power adapter) and has no active cooling so it is very low heat output and zero noise. The Plugable Multiseat Terminal can also be used under Windows with the DisplayLink drivers, which does allow for GPU acceleration on the host.

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