The Bristol Wireless LTSP suite

Bristol Wireless are a collective who run, among other things, a community-access wireless network in the Easton area of the city. Their LTSP suite is one of those other things.

I’ve been working with some of the Bristol Wireless crew at The St Werburghs Centre over the last few months, but it wasn’t until FAVE last Saturday that I got a chance to see the LTSP suite up and running, and I was so impressed I thought I’d write about it.

LTSP stands for the “Linux Terminal Server Project”. Simply put, a terminal server is a machine that runs applications on behalf of client machines – the terminals. This means you can use old or low-spec hardware to build clients and connect them to a more powerful machine which will actually do most of the work, enabling users to access applications on the clients that they’d be too slow or flakey to run without the server’s power.

[LTSP users at FAVE]

The Bristol Wireless LTSP suite is just such a patchwork of near-obsolete and flashy new hardware: a pile of ancient laptops donated by the local police force are connected to a powerful new Acer laptop boasting gigabytes of RAM using a bundle of Cat-5 and a gigabit ethernet switch. The Acer takes care of the bulk of the processing and the gigabit ethernet ensures that the connections are as fast as possible. Combine it with the satellite uplink from their collaborators Psand, and they’ve got a mobile IT facility that fits into the boot of a small car!

[The Terminal Server]

And it works like a charm. The clients are responsive and boast a wide range of applications and the whole system has proved a success with users: so far this summer it’s been taken to the Home Education Festival and the Big Green Gathering where it was a hit with the kids as well as the FAVE event where it proved popular among the geeks (like me, for example). As well as being a flexible community resource, the project is a great showcase for what can be achieved with some old hardware, Free software and a bit of ingenuity, and it provides a slick and impressive user experience for people coming to a Free software based system for the first time.

[More LTSP users at FAVE]

Given the fact that Bristol Wireless come across as a relaxed group who run their projects on an ad-hoc voluntary basis, this shows what they can put together when they get down to business. They are using LTSP to build IT suites elsewhere in the city and are expanding their operations to offer other services such as internet connectivity as well as access to the local wireless network (my employer, the St Werburghs Centre, is one of their new customers), so let’s hope their future projects continue to be as impressive.

(For more photos, see here.)