bringing the thinclient back

I had to solve a problem. The problem was that I did not wanted to have the exact same session and screen shared across different work places/locations simultaneously. From looking at the same screen from a different floor to have the option to just walk over to the lab-desk solder some circuits together and have the very same documents opened already and set on the screens over there.

One option was to use a tablet or notebook and carry it around. But this would not solve the need to have the screen content displayed on several screens simultaneously.

Also I did not want to rely on the computing power of a notebook / tablet alone. Of course those would get more powerful over time. But each step would mean I would have to purchase a new one.

Then in a move of desperation I remembered the “old days” when ThinClients used to be the new-kid in town. And then I tried something:

I just recently had moved all house server infrastructure over to Linux and Docker. So what would keep me from utilizing the computing power of that one beefy server in the basement to host all of my desktop needs?

It turns out: Nothing really. Docker is well prepared to host desktop environments. With a bit of tweaking and TigerVNC Xvnc I was able to pre-configure the most current Ubuntu to start my preferred Mate desktop environment in a container and expose it through VNC.

If you wanted to replicate this I would recommend this repository as a starting point.

Even better I found that the RaspberryPi single board computers come with a free pre-licensed and accelerated version of RealVNC.

So I took one of those RaspberryPis, booted up the Raspbian Desktop lite and connected to the dockers VNC port. It all worked just like that.

this is the RaspberryPi client with the windowed docker container VNC session

The screenshot above holds an additional information for you. I wanted sound! Video works smooth up to a certain size of the moving video – after all those RaspberryPis only come with sub Gbit/s wired networking. But to get sound working I had to add some additional steps.

First on the RaspberryPI that you want to output the sound to the speakers you need to install and set-up pulseaudio + paprefs. When you configure it to accept audio over the network you can then configure the client to do so.

In the docker container a simple command would then redirect all audio to the network:

pax11publish -e -S thinclient

Just replace “thinclient” with the ip or hostname of your RaspberryPI. After a restart Chrome started to play audio across the network through the speakers of the ThinClient.

Now all my screens got those RaspberryPIs attached to them and with Docker I can even run as many desktop environments in parallel as I wish. And because VNC does not care about how many connections there are made to one session it means that I can have all workplaces across the house connected to the same screen seeing the same content at the same time.

And yes: The UI and overall feel is silky smooth. And since VNC adapts to some extend to the available bandwidth by changing the quality of the image even across the internet the VNC sessions are very much useable. Given that there’s only 1 port for video and 1 port for audio it’s even possible to tunnel those sessions across to anywhere you might need them.

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