Many people think a terminal server is an ideal solution for a small business. You can have a single machine where multiple users can log in and use applications from a single source. The problem with the current state of Terminal Server (at least on the Windows front) is that it’s incredibly expensive. Is the small office/small business crowd stuck with having to drop serious coin for the Microsoft solution, or are there another route to take?

Fortunately, the small office/small business crowd doesn’t have to drop serious coin for the Microsoft solution — there are some great options out there that won’t put as much of a dent in your budget. The endgame to these solutions is a server that would allow users to connect and use the applications they need to get their work done. Some applications (such as QuickBooks) don’t work on these solutions, but there are always alternatives to those applications as well (such as GnuCash).

Terminal Server replacement options

1: Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP)

This project is one of the easiest options to get up and running — at least from a server perspective. It’s so easy on a Ubuntu server, in fact, that the entire system can be installed with a single command from an already working Ubuntu server install (you’ll also need to have two network interfaces: one for internal network and one for external network). The command is:

sudo apt-get install ltsp-server-standalone openssh-server

And then build the client environment with the command:

sudo ltsp-build-client

It’s just a matter of connecting the clients, and you’re good to go… well, in theory. There a number of other steps that must be taken, which you can read about in the documentation on the LTSP Wiki. LTSP might well be one of the most well documented of all the available options.

2: Thinstation

This solution is a different take on the service. Totally based on Linux, a Thinstation environment can be set up in such a way that a user never sees the Linux platform. Thinstation supports all major connectivity protocols and is somewhat the opposite of a standard thin-client setup. Thinstation is installed on the client and can then connect the following:

  • Citrix servers using the ICA protocol (on top of Microsoft Windows Server, Sun Solaris, and IBM AIX)
  • Microsoft Windows Servers using the RDP protocol by rdesktop or nxclient (Windows NT4TSE, Windows 2000 Server, Windows 2003 Server, Windows 2008 Server, and even Windows XP or Windows 7 as single user only)
  • Tarantella servers
  • Unix servers running X or NX
  • VNC Servers (actually TightVNC)
  • Telnet and SSH (Secure Shell) servers

The minimum requirements for Thinstation are:

  • Processor: x86 +100Mhz
  • RAM: 16MB (min) (8MB using TinyX)
  • Video card: All supported by XFree86 3.3.6 SVGA, Xorg, or SVGALib
  • Network cards: Realtek 8139, NE2000, EEPro100, Davicom 910x, SiS900, VIA, 3Com 905/ 59x, etc. (see build.conf)

It’s incredibly important to look at the documentation within the download. This particular solution will require you to work overtime to get it up and running, but the payoff should be worth the effort.

3: NoMachine NX

Once this free server is installed, it will allow easy remote access to a UNIX server or workstation. And since UNIX/Linux is multi-user by default, access to that desktop (on a per-user basis) will mean every user will have access to all user-level applications and services on the server.

The NoMachine NX server acts as much like a virtual machine as it does a terminal server. But unlike Terminal Server, NoMachine NX makes sharing sound and printing virtually a no-brainer. And, as they say on their website “NoMachine NX makes it possible to transform any traditional desktop computing environment into a centrally managed, globally accessible, virtual desktop infrastructure.”

Be sure to also take a look at NoMachine’s other solutions, which can help to expand your machine’s capabilities.

4: ThinLinc

This option can serve as a terminal server replacement as well as a desktop virtualization solution. The free version of this client can run up to 10 concurrent users. You can download both the server and client CDs. The setup process is simple:

  1. Download Server image. (Note: You will have to register for the download.)
  2. Burn Server image to CD.
  3. Insert CD into the machine that is to be the server.
  4. Reboot server.
  5. Walk through the easy to use graphical installer.
  6. Download the client for the desired platform.
  7. Install the client.
  8. Connect to the server.

Check out a full break-down of ThinLinc’s impressive feature list.

What do you think of these options?

Do you consider these suitable replacements for Terminal Server? If not, what do these solutions lack, and how could they improve to be up for the task? Let us know in the comments.

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