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How iAcquire Makes Use Of Ubuntu Linux Workstations – It’s Not Just For Developers

Last weekend I saw a post about Google’s use of Ubuntu Linux workstations that caught my attention and I thought I’d share a little bit about how we are using Ubuntu at iAcquire. Google has said that they have everyone from the cook in the kitchen to the people who wrote the original Unix using Ubuntu! We’ve found Ubuntu to be a great Linux distribution that is user friendly, efficient, secure and powerful.

Last weekend I saw a post about Google’s use of Ubuntu Linux workstations that caught my attention and I thought I’d share a little bit about how we are using Ubuntu at iAcquire. Google has said that they have everyone from the cook in the kitchen to the people who wrote the original Unix using Ubuntu! We’ve found Ubuntu to be a great Linux distribution that is user friendly, efficient, secure and powerful. Ubuntu has finally brought a quality user experience to the Linux Desktop.

The Fulfillment Team – 45 Happy Ubuntu Users, Who Needs Disks?!

The single largest department at iAcquire is our fulfillment team and they currently work every day on dual-head Ubuntu 10.04 LTSP diskless workstations. These diskless workstations are what are known as Fat Clients – the entire operating system is loaded via a compressed disk image over our Gigabit LAN, authentication is done via SSH, and home directories are mounted via NFS. All applications are run locally and are very fast – it is nearly unnoticeable that the machine is running entirely over the network. Behind the scenes we have two powerful servers in a hot-standby configuration that serve these diskless clients.

iAcquire Ubuntu Linux Workstations

There are many benefits to this setup:

  • Viruses and Malware are not a threat
  • No sensitive information is ever stored on local disks
  • All the great software we need to work and be entertained is easily available
  • Hardware failures are a non-issue
  • Support costs and IT support time is near zero
  • Purchase cost – our raw hardware costs for these diskless machines is minimal

 

Viruses and Malware? I Don’t Think So!
Our fulfillment team spends their day visiting hundreds if not thousands of websites across the Internet. Diskless workstations have a near zero risk of infection, even in the extreme rare case of an infection a simple reboot wipes out any trace of it.

Redundancy Redundancy Redundancy
All data is securely stored on our backend servers which are locked in our server room and are continuously backed up. These systems have redundant RAID 10 disk arrays and redundant power supplies as well as redundant network uplinks. There is no single point of failure and each of the hot-standby servers is isolated on its own UPS backup power system.

Software, Everything You Need Is Right There
Believe it or not, we rarely have a situation where we find that the applications available on Linux do not satisfy our requirements. Here are our most commonly used applications:

Hardware Failures
If a machine fails – which of course they occasionally do, we simply pull the machine and replace it. The iAcquire team member will then simply log back in and continue where they left off. Failures do happen and we’re setup to handle them as if nothing happened. With a typical standard workstation with a locally installed OS this is typically not the case. A single device failure can end up costing the business thousands of dollars.

Lowest Possible Total Cost of Ownership You Can Imagine
And then there’s the cost. The TCO of this solution is absurdly low. Our approximate per-workstation cost is about $760. This price includes all server and network infrastructure and software licenses ($0). Compare this to the cost of managing any other OS configuration and it just blows everything else away.

How On Earth Did You End Up With This Crazy Setup?

Over the past three years iAcquire has been growing rapidly… About two years ago when the fulfillment team simply consisted of 10 or so people, and the “Tech Team” consisted of two people – we were constantly dealing with computer problems, hardware issues, Windows crashing, the occasional virus, managing virus software updates, OS updates, and other typical IT problems. We came to the conclusion that if the primary applications needed were web browsers and e-mail clients, then there was no real need for Windows or Mac OSX. We did not need to use any proprietary or commercial applications and for the users that did we would manage their systems separately.

Today we have a mixture of Windows 7, Mac OSX, and Linux desktops. We make heavy use of cloud services and strive to keep IT overhead at a minimum. To date we have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars in unnecessary costs by choosing Linux and open-source platforms.

The Path to Ubuntu 12.04 – Precise Pangolin

Several of the iAcquire developers are currently using Ubuntu 12.04 / Precise Pangolin on our desktops – including myself. And we really love it, it’s an extremely good user experience. Unfortunately we’re not yet able to share the awesome experience of Precise with the fulfillment team due to several squirrels (aka bugs) that are preventing us from deploying it. We will be doing more testing over the coming months and plan to share this experience with the rest of the iAcquire team as soon as we can.

The Nuts And Bolts, Gears And Such

Purpose built diskless workstations can be unnecessarily expensive – sometimes costing nearly as much as full scale workstations including disks and operating system licenses. We’ve found a much better source for our workstations. We actually build our own diskless workstations which consist of a Foxconn bare-bones system, an Intel Sandy Bridge processor, a single 4GB DRAM stick, two 19” LED backlit LCD monitors, a dual LCD monitor mount, keyboard, mouse and an Ethernet cable. It takes about 10 minutes to build and prepare one of these machines for use.

This Is Badass! Where Can I Buy Some Of These?!

Lets look at what it takes to build one of these workstations. Here are the components you’ll need:

Total Cost: ~$490

Servers
We use quality Linux servers from Silicon Mechanics.

Assembling A Diskless Workstation Is EASY

  1. Remove case from Foxconn box, remove single screw in center of top cover
  2. Cover removed, remove power cord from inside the case
  3. Install memory, make sure it snaps in securely
  4. Unlatch CPU restrainer and carefully remove protective cover
  5. Unpack and install CPU, be careful and ensure that the notches on the chip match up with the notches on the board
  6. Lock the CPU into place
  7. Install the CPU fan, make sure you connect the power to the CPU fan header on the main board. Push down on each of the fan fasteners (do not twist them!)
  8. Power on the machine, press the DELETE key repeatedly to enter the BIOS setup
  9. Use the arrow keys to choose “Onboard Device Configuration”, hit Enter
  10. Use the arrow keys to select “Onboard LAN PXE OpROM” and hit Enter
  11. Use the arrow keys to select “Enabled” and hit Enter
  12. Hit Escape, use the right arrow key to select “Save and Exit”, hit Enter twice

For more information on LTSP and Fat Clients – take a look at Ubuntu’s documentation over here: https://help.ubuntu.com/community/UbuntuLTSP/FatClients

If you made it this far, make sure you follow me: @jeffnappi

Shout out to Kyle Bastian and Tavit for the help with the comic J

  • http://twitter.com/joegriffin Joe Griffin

    Jeff, you are a mastermind bro.

    • http://twitter.com/jeffnappi Jeff Nappi

      Thank you sir.

  • http://twitter.com/FerrisAgain Heather Ferris

    Shhh…I’m watching live footage of penguins.

  • http://twitter.com/James_Hammons James Hammons

    Shameless plug here… I really like the SPICE client for virtual desktop delivery and rich content rendering. Looks like you’ve engineered something very similar! HUGE props from one open-source nerd to another!