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Linux Based Diskless Workstations

By Ewen McNeill, Naos Limited
Presented at NetForum 2000, October 2000.
Abstract: Linux has received much popular press as a server operating system, but applications in the workstation area have received less attention. This article describes how to use Linux and PC hardware to produce a diskless workstation booting off the network or a floppy disk. With suitable hardware the days of a quiet work area, free from computer noise, can return.


Not so long ago computers were either large machines housed in carefully controlled rooms accessed via serial terminals, or smaller home machines which booted from ROM. The PC revolution has brought a computer to each desk, along with the noisy fans and disks a modern PC requires, the maintenance nightmare of hundreds of different computers installations to maintain, and the never ending cycle of faster and faster computers being required.

Diskless workstations offer an opportunity to avoid these problems (in exchange for a different set of problems of course :-) ). This article describes how Linux can be used in the construction of a diskless workstation that can serve as a remote X terminal for a central server, and indicates other uses for diskless workstations.

While this article is based around PC hardware, because of the relatively low price and ease of access to PC hardware, much of strategy described in the article is also appropriate to other hardware supported by Linux.

The following sections describe what a diskless workstation is, how Linux is relevant, the theory behind using a Linux diskless workstation, and a gives practical example based on the author's setup. The article ends with a brief discussion of related projects, and references to available resources.

A diskless workstation

A "diskless workstation" is a computer without a hard drive in it, and generally without a CD-ROM drive or a floppy drive either, that is used interactively by someone. The workstation has a network card and video card, and may also have other expansion cards such as a sound card.

A diskless workstation inherently relies on services provided on the network for most of its operation, including booting and running applications. Generally the workstation will be operated as a thin client using a central server to provide access to files and run applications, but given sufficient resources of its own, some applications can be run locally.

When operated in a thin client mode the resource requirements for the diskless workstation are relatively modest, making it quite feasible to use older computers (eg, Pentium 150-200) for the workstations. This offers a considerable benefit in reusing existing hardware.

A Linux diskless workstation

Linux makes a good choice for a diskless workstation operating system because it offers good support for a wide range of PC hardware (network and video support is particularly relevant here), and the Linux 2.2 kernel series includes support for network booting and several network file systems. It is also available relatively cheaply, and the source code is available easing the task of diagnosing or fixing problems.

Also relevant is the fact that a number of people are actively using Linux in the construction of diskless workstations (see references later), and thus support in getting things going is readily available.

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