Over the years, I've mentioned Stratodesk a few times in the context of repurposing PCs, but as best I can tell I've never actually written an article about them. That's a shame, because what Stratodesk does is really cool, and it's high time we give them some proper attention!
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If you don't know Stratodesk, they're a San Francisco-based company that's been around since 2010 (2002 if you count their years under the name LISCON). Their product, NoTouch Desktop, converts any x-86 device into a centrally-managed thin client, similar to the PC repurposing tools you find from other vendors. What sets NoTouch apart is that you can also use it to repurpose existing x86-based thin clients in addition to PCs and laptops.
I'm not saying other repurposing tools can't do this, but NoTouch was built from the ground up for this purpose. If you're in an organization that has thin clients from multiple vendors, you probably have multiple management platforms, too. With NoTouch, you can eliminate that by standardizing the OS across all your x86-based thin clients and managing them from the same location.
We'll dig into the features more in a bit, but there's been an important addition to the NoTouch offering that deserves a mention: Raspberry Pi support.
NoTouch on the Raspberry Pi
Over the last few years, Raspberry Pi hardware has become powerful enough to enter the mainstream. Support from Citrix, along with a collaboration with ThinLinX (which makes a third-party thin client OS for the RPi) resulted in the first HDX certified RPi entering the market in early 2016.
Though capable from an end user perspective, the ThinLinX OS lacked certain enterprise features like role-based management and support for certificates. It didn't take long for Citrix to look elsewhere to make their devices more enterprise-ready, which is where Stratodesk comes in. Though they were only x86-based, Stratodesk created an ARM build of NoTouch to work with the Raspberry Pi platform and eventually established a partnership with Citrix and the two hardware vendors that make RPi thin clients: Viewsonic and NComputing.
Viewsonic and NComputing both sell their Raspberry Pi thin clients for $119, which seems like a lot considering a Raspberry Pi on Amazon costs $35, but by the time you assemble a kit that contains a micro-SD card, power supply, case, and heatsink, you can easily hit $70. Both Viewsonic and nComputing clients also come with the NoTouch license, which lists for $49, which evens up the price right there. Add in the fact that Viewsonic and NComputing support their devices and have gotten them FCC certified and it's a no-brainer to go with them over building your own. (Still, if you wanted to roll your own RPi NoTouch client, you could.)
Raspberry Pi dual-display support
When Citrix first released their Raspberry Pi thin client, they spoke of adding in dual-display support at a later date. Lack of HDMI ports notwithstanding, the Raspberry Pi isn't exactly brimming over with framebuffer capacity, so I was doubtful that they'd be able to pull it off. As it turns out, with the help of a Raspberry Pi Zero built into a USB adapter, they've managed to pull it off.
The Pi Zero is an even tinier device that, at least in this situation, serves exclusively as a USB-HDMI adapter. NoTouch simply looks at what's being sent to the display, and every pixel with a horizontal position greater than 1920 is sent via USB, through the adapter, to the secondary display. I don't think you get to have funky screen orientations or run airplane simulators, but you can support side-by-side displays running business applications with a Raspberry Pi, and that's pretty awesome.
Stability across multiple architectures
My first question to Emanuel Pirker, founder and CEO of Stratodesk, was if adding another architecture to their code base makes their operation more complex. After all, you'd think that they'd have their hands full just keeping up to date with x86 platforms, so adding support for a completely different architecture seems like it would add a challenge.
It turns out this is something they're quite used to already. Using the term x86 is artificially vague because Stratodesk supports several generations of hardware. In reality, they produce three x86 builds (one for modern hardware, one for hardware that's between 3-6 years old, and another for even older hardware), plus the Raspberry Pi build, from a single code base. They do this using build scripts.
Build scripts take care of assembling source code packages, compiling the source code into binaries, packaging them for deployment, and testing the packages for each platform, with contingencies built-in for each one. For example, the build script to create the modern platform package compiles all the latest features and applications, then tests it before calling it a successful build. The 3-6 year build has certain limitations, like only being able to run a certain version of Firefox or only supporting an older Linux kernel, so the build script automatically builds the code to comply with those limitations. The same goes for the other builds, including the Raspberry Pi. The result is a fully compliant, packaged, and tested build for each platform that's derived from a single set of source code.
I don't want to get out my propeller hat (this is cool stuff that Brian Madden and I use in our custom pinball alter-ego life), so I'll stop there, but it's safe to say my concerns for supporting different architectures are gone.
When you determine which builds you need for your organization, you can deploy them in a few ways. Some customers still use boot CDs, while others USB sticks or PXE. In any of those scenarios, you can run NoTouch live or install it on to local storage. They even have a deployment method that lets you push an MSI file to an existing Windows device that, when installed, modifies the Windows boot loader so that NoTouch launches on reboot, even though Windows is still on the device.
Adding clients into the management system can be done in a few ways, too. Stratodesk offers an on-premises management server, or you can subscribe to a cloud service. Connecting the devices to the management server can be done manually, of course, but you can also create a host entry in DNS called "tcmgr," which the thin client will attempt to connect to when it first boots up. Additionally, there is a setup wizard that will allow the end user to plug in an address if the tcmgr address can't be resolved, or if you're using the cloud-based management.
(It's worth noting that if you just want to test the OS, you can also use the wizard to set up remote connections without connecting the device to a management server)
The cloud management service is generally used by service providers that service smaller customers rather than deploying on-premises management at each location. There's no reason a larger organization couldn't do it, though there is an extra charge. You could also spin up your own management instance at a public cloud provider. There is a certificate on the management server, so communications with the client are secure.
Inside NoTouch's management console, admins create groups of devices that have a specific configuration. You can set up "Connections," which is their word for any number of clients, scripts, or operations that are shown as icons on a user's desktop. These can include all the desktop virtualization clients in addition to web browsers, startup and shutdown scripts, an IBM 5250 client, and even Telnet.
Each of these Connections has its own set of configurations. For example, the Citrix Connection configuration exposes all the configuration options that you might want to configure. Most people do this at the Citrix policy level, but if you wanted to, for example, disable CGP or enable local text input on the client side, you could. The idea behind this is that Stratodesk doesn't want the admins to ever have to hit a Linux terminal do administer a device. You could create a custom script if you wanted to, but they've gone to great lengths to expose everything they can in their admin interface.
In addition to Connection configuration, NoTouch also features some lower-level device management capabilities. Frankly, there are more bells and whistles here than I expected to see from a system that was designed to work across so many different hardware types. You can configure settings related to hotkeys, Bluetooth, WiFi, security, display, attached devices, and more. The best example I saw of the granularity of the settings was in the Audio config, where you can specify things like the max microphone volume! You may not ever want to do that, but if you did, you wouldn't have to drop to a Linux terminal to do it.
I learned a lot more about NoTouch that I've left out in hopes of keeping this article under 2000 words, but let me highlight a few more things that stood out:
- NoTouch clients support Skype for Business, even on the Raspberry Pi (which was originally a huge limitation of that platform).
- They have a reporting framework in place that logs things like USB activity and keeps an inventory of devices.
- One healthcare customer actually uses a vending machine with Raspberry Pi thin clients in it. If a nurse needs one, they simply scan their badge and a client pops out. They just plug in the keyboard/mouse/video cables, and the device does the rest. It even determines its location by looking at surround Bluetooth beacons and WiFi networks so it can get the proper config.
- While we're talking about healthcare, NoTouch also works with Imprivata.
- Stratodesk's largest customer has deployed 15,000-16,000 clients, and there are others with over 10,000 devices. One such customer is a retail chain that uses them to run kiosks.
- They have plans to add MDM-management capabilities in the future to align with the Unified Endpoint Management trend, which would be a fantastic solution to what was likely going to be a fringe problem that would not get properly addressed (that is, lots of thin clients from different manufacturers still peppered around the enterprise).
Pricing and wrap-up
Stratodesk NoTouch pricing is pretty simple. It retails for $49 per device, plus $9.80 per year for updates and maintenance. For that $49, you can deploy it any way you want, even on a USB stick, which actually has me wondering why Igel is charging $169 for UD Pocket, which is essentially a tiny 8GB USB stick with Igel OS on it, when for $49 plus a tiny $8 USB stick from Amazon I could do something similar with NoTouch for one third the price.
Everyone's use case is different, so there could be reasons to choose one over the other, but Stratodesk NoTouch should factor into any planning you're doing with regards to your thin client strategy. The fact that they work with any x86 thin client and the Raspberry Pi gives them an angle that no other company offers. Give them a look, download a trial, and see if you can alleviate a problem that has probably grown to be a headache over many years of virtualizing desktops.