Doc / Reviews / The New Internet Computer

The New Internet Computer (NIC) is a Linux-based, diskless ``thin client''. It performs its basic function, that of a dedicated web browser and X terminal, admirably, but its main attraction is that it has an industry-standard Intel architecture and boots from either a CD-ROM or the network. Combined with a low price, it is useful for most thin client and many thin server applications.


A couple of years ago, Larry Ellison introduced the idea of the Internet Computer (also known as Network Computer, Thin Client, and Fat Chance). The idea was that you'd hang a cheap, diskless machine on your network, run a Java-enabled web browser on it, and use it to connect to your company's servers (running, for example, Oracle, the database Larry's company was, and still is, selling). It was an update of the decade-old X terminal, the idea being that you'd hang a cheap, diskless machine on your network, run the network-oriented X Window System on it, and use it to connect to your company's servers (running some variant of Unix, for which X is the standard graphical user interface). It didn't happen.

In the meantime, personal computers became not only widespread but dirt cheap. It's all about volume: with millions of commodity PC's on the market, built from commodity components, there was no way for a custom-built machine with quantities in the thousands to compete. PC prices dove from multiple thousands of dollars in the 80's to six or seven hundred here in the early 00's (that's pronounced ``naughties,'' of course).

There's an interesting phenomenon in computer pricing: the amount of computer power (as measured megahertz of clock speed or megabytes of storage) per dollar doubles every 12-18 months. But the price of a computer or any of its components does not decrease nearly as rapidly: it tends to converge on a baseline price range at which the manufacturer and retailer can make a profit, and the price stays roughly constant while the performance doubles.

You can easily see this in disk drives. New drives, twice as big as the biggest drives available last year, come onto the market at $2-300. Last year's high-end drives become this year's commodity, at around $150. Two-year-old drives are dumped at $70 or so to clear the shelves. The price range, or equivalently the baseline price, declines much more slowly because it's determined by the cost of the mechanical components, labor, and so on. Reducing the baseline price requires introducing new manufacturing techniques or eliminating non-essential components. A disk drive or PC today is a much simpler device than one of a decade ago: this effect is called the ``learning curve'': the price declines as the manufacturer learns to improve the process.

At this point, the baseline price of a PC is determined by its major components: the CPU/memory/motherboard, case/power supply, hard drive/CD-ROM drive, and the Windows software license. The software license is the only cost that is not subject to Moore's law or manufacturing learning curves, and in fact is increasing.

Which brings us to the New Internet Computer. Drop down to a slower CPU, a cheaper motherboard with no slots (designed, apparently, for use in set-top boxes and point-of-sale terminals), correspondingly smaller case and power supply, eliminate the hard drive, and above all get rid of Windows. The result is a box that can sell for $200, about a third the price of a low-end PC. Now things start to get interesting.

Previous attempts at a network computer had a ``give away the razor and sell blades'' business model: cut the price to practically nothing and combine it with a monthly subscription for internet access. This can work: TiVo is using it for video, and I recently saw an ad for a laser printer ``free with two toner cartridges!'' But it has been a total flop for thin clients, for a very simple reason: the early adopters, the people most likely to buy new technological gadgets, already have internet access.

The New Internet Computer (NIC) is the first thin client to be sold without an associated service. What you buy is all you need. Attach it to your network, or your phone line, and use whatever service provider you're already using. What a concept! It's irresistable.

But should you resist anyway? I didn't.

The Network Computer: Out of the Box

The promise of the NIC is simple: it's an appliance, like a toaster. Plug it into your network, plug it into an AC socket, plug in a monitor, keyboard, mouse, and speakers, and turn it on. Up pops Netscape, and you're off and running.

So I did, and it was. Yes, it really is that simple. The first thing you see on opening the box is the folded-up, poster-sized sheet of installation instructions. There's a manual, but you probably won't need it -- you don't really need the sheet, either. If your LAN has DHCP (and if you have Windows machines sharing an internet connection it probably does), you just click ``OK'' on a couple of setup dialogs and you're off.

OK, so what's in the box?

The monitor is extra -- NIC will gladly sell you a CRT or LCD monitor for only slightly more than you could get one down the street, but I didn't bother.

Perhaps you were wondering how the NIC manages to boot without a hard disk? Simple: it boots from CD-ROM. It has a laptop-style CD-ROM drive (i.e., small and cheap with no motorized tray), and takes ordinary bootable CD-ROMs: the CPU is Intel-compatible (a 200MHz Cyrix MediaGX). There is 4Mb of flash for configuration information and the all-important bookmarks file, interfaced to the IDE controller like a hard drive and formatted as ext2.

On the boot disk is a customized Linux distribution. It automatically starts X and logs you in as web; your ``shell'' is Netscape. Quit from Netscape and it starts right back up again.

The ``home page,'' which is local, contains a row of buttons that are links to selected websites. The ``tools'' icon on the toolbar opens up a subwindow that's basically an iconic menu with ``folder''-like icons for the subcategories: connectivity, demos, and games (which run locally). Connectivity includes telnet, ssh, vnc, and Citrix (for Windows NT connectivity -- I didn't try it). You also have xhost for allowing or preventing other machines' access to your display.

And that's it. It's an X terminal and browser. You want to store files? The manual points you to a couple of web services (xdrive and idrive). E-mail? The same. You can't get much thinner. Oh, yes -- you can print to a USB printer, if you have one of the handfull it supports.

If this was all it did, it would be a nice access device for somebody without a PC, but not very exciting. It's a bit noisy (no less than 3 fans, plus the noise of the CD-ROM drive when it's spinning), and it's slow (mainly because all the programs have to be loaded from the CD-ROM). But it works, it's rock solid, and a nine-year-old could get it up and running.

Inside the Box

Did I mention that the NIC has an x86 CPU and boots from CD-ROM? The next thing I did was to haul out a Bootable Business Card and -- hey, how do you shut this thing down?

I spent ten minutes poring through the manual and the help files before it finally hit me: there's no disk! You just push the power button, and it turns off. Just like a TV. Right. Popping the CD with the power turned off requires a paperclip, just like the floppy on an old Mac, or you can turn it on and pop the CD while the BIOS is thinking about whether to boot from it.

So I popped in the BBC, turned it on, and a few seconds later was staring at a login prompt, and then a bash prompt. Being root on a diskless workstation with 4Mb of flash is a little like being lord of all you survey -- in a broom closet. I grovelled around in the configuration files, which took all of five minutes, ssh'ed to my desktop machine; not terribly exciting. For good measure I mounted the boot CD on my desktop machine and pawed through the startup scripts and checked on /lib/modules and /bin -- not much, and about what you'd expect.

Then I opened the case (which was held on by three screws and probably voided my warranty, but I didn't care). That's when I discovered the three fans (case, CPU, and power supply). It also confirmed the lack of expandability: no slots, and only one IDE controller with both devices present (CD-ROM and flash disk).

Outside the Box

OK. So by this time I should have been feeling a bit of a letdown: here I've just shelled out $200 for a rather slow, rather noisy browser box with no hard drive. Why am I not complaining?

The main thing is that this box is totally user-configurable. You don't even need a CD-ROM burner: it turns out you can configure it to boot off the network. NIC not only doesn't mind if you reconfigure it, they even help. And if that's not enough there are several sites, including the Linux Router Project and Jamey Zawinski's internet kiosk page, that have complete instructions. By now there are probably dozens of more-or-less specialized Linux distributions that support it. FreeBSD, too. Google turned up 1700 references.

You can even pull out the little flash disk and add a hard drive. Or add a USB-to-ethernet interface and use it for a router. Add a USB camera and call it a webcam.

Did I mention that the power switch is mechanical? Push on, push off, but if you pull the plug it's still in the ``on'' state and reboots when you plug it back in. Handy. Don't try it if you've installed a hard drive, unless you're using a journalling filesystem.

In fact, the NIC is ideal for many (not all) ``mostly embedded'' applications for which a PC is ill-suited and a ``real'' embedded SBC would be too expensive. Let's look at some of the obvious applications:

  1. Diskless workstation or X terminal, of course. That's what it's designed for, after all. There are lots of uses for these, and customizing the disk (or one of the diskless setups) is dead simple:
  2. Special-purpose kiosks. Since you can easily customize the system, there's no need to have it come up in Netscape. It can be any application you want. I once saw a kiosk that printed business cards... With a card reader on one USB interface and a printer on the other, you could (for example) make a kiosk that prints digital photos.
  3. Modem server/router/firewall. For about twice the price of a good external modem you get ethernet and USB. It's true that you need a USB dongle to get a second ethernet port, but that only adds maybe $50. It's hard to find a Linux-based router for less than $3-400 these days. (It is true that the NIC gobbles a little more power. On the other hand it's more configurable.)
  4. Special-purpose server. It's true that the NIC doesn't have parallel ports, which limits its use as a print server. On the other hand there are USB-to-parallel interfaces. And of course, any supported USB peripheral is fair game: scanners, cameras, PCMCIA card readers, speakers, embroidery machines, you name it. This kind of thing is pretty worthless if your desktop machine or your server is running Linux, has USB, and is located near the peripheral(s) you want to control. That's not always true, though. It's especially not true if your main Linux machine is dual-boot. In that case, the NIC is a cheap way to get an always-on Linux box.
  5. File server. For this, of course, you have to replace the CD-ROM and flash drives with one or two real hard drives, and you can't expect great performance.
  6. Low-end workstation. Replace the CD-ROM and flash drives with a real hard drive, maybe replace the keyboard and mouse with your favorites (I like the old IBM keyboards and Logitech optical trackballs, myself) and you have a perfectly good Linux workstation. It's going to be a little more expensive than hauling an old clunker out of the closet, but it has a much smaller case and uses a third the power (I live in California -- that's a significant benefit).

The bottom line is that, although the NIC is not particularly exciting out of the box, it can be an inexpensive and useful part of your network with only a minimal amount of customization.

$Id: nic.html,v 1.4 2002/01/13 05:14:46 steve Exp $
Stephen R. Savitzky <>