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Google releases Neatx NX server

July 24, 2009

This article was contributed by Koen Vervloesem

On July 7, internet search giant Google not only announced its operating system Google Chrome OS with much fanfare, it also quietly released Neatx, an open source NX server. According to the announcement, Google has been looking at remote desktop technologies for quite a while. While the X Window System has issues with network latency and bandwidth, the NX protocol compresses X requests and reduces round-trips, resulting in much better performance — to the point that it can be used over network connections with low bandwidth.

So with Neatx, users can log in to a remote Linux desktop. Moreover, the session can be suspended and resumed later from another computer, resembling the functionality that GNU screen offers for console sessions. But, unlike screen, a Neatx user has access to the GUI of the remote machine, just as if they were sitting in front of it.

The NX protocol, using SSH as a transport and for authentication, was developed by the Italian company NoMachine, which released the source code of the core NX technology in 2003 under the GPL. NoMachine offers free (as in beer) client and server software for various operating systems, including Linux. It wasn't very long before free-as-in-speech NX clients emerged, then, in 2004, Fabian Franz implemented FreeNX, a GPL implementation of an NX server.

FreeNX development stalls

However, after a number of years the FreeNX project is facing some serious problems. Franz hasn't responded to e-mails on the developer mailing list for a long time and he seems to be the only one able to check code into the repository. As a consequence, the development has stalled for some time. That brought Florian Schmidt to ask about the future:

I think the whole freenx project should decide if they still like to wait for Fabian or if they want to start the project on a new space with some more admins and decide a development core team and project space maintainers.

Because upstream FreeNX development has stalled, downstream packagers have essentially picked up the development. There is a FreeNX team that maintains Debian and Ubuntu packages. These maintainers push appropriate patches to their branch and thus have the most up-to-date repository, with some extra features the official FreeNX server doesn't have, such as shadowing local X sessions and stubs for guest sessions. Marcelo Boveto Shima, one of the maintainers, noted FreeNX problems in a post to the FreeNX mailing list: "Working on FreeNX is a dead-end and it is becoming too hackish." He decided to write his own FreeNX server, TaciX. In the meantime, the Debian/Ubuntu repository has become the "upstream" for Gentoo's FreeNX package.

A new NX server from scratch

Shima wasn't the only one disappointed in FreeNX development. According to Google the server was "written in a mix of several thousand lines of BASH, Expect and C, making FreeNX difficult to maintain." That's why some developers at Google designed Neatx, a new implementation, based on NoMachine's open source NX libraries:

Designed from scratch with flexibility and maintainability in mind, Neatx minimizes the number of involved processes and all code is split into several libraries. It is written in Python, with the exception of very few wrapper scripts in BASH and one program written in C for performance reasons. Neatx was also able to reuse some code from another Google Open Source project, Ganeti. The code still has some issues, but we're confident interested developers will be able to fix them.

Google implemented Neatx because the company operates a large number of virtualized workstations in clusters [PDF], running on its cluster virtual server management software tool, Ganeti. To be able to log in to the virtual workstation from home or via a wireless connection and work smoothly, X or VNC can't be used. That led Google to turn to the NX protocol. An added bonus is that the protocol allows restoring a session opened at the office from home and vice versa. In the release announcement, the developers noted that Neatx implements some features not found in FreeNX, but also that it lacks some other features that FreeNX has.

Neatx in action

Your author tried both QtNX and NoMachine's NX client to connect to FreeNX 0.7.3 and Neatx on Ubuntu 9.04. Because Neatx has not yet released an official version, your author checked out the latest source code and built it. It turned out QtNX can't connect to Neatx because of a version mismatch, and the Neatx developers seem to test their server software with NoMachine's NX client, so that is the only supported client for now.

[Neatx]

Session creation, suspension, resumption, and shutdown all work well in Neatx. Users can choose between Gnome, KDE, Application, and Console sessions, and they can run their session on a virtual desktop or as a floating window. They are also able to set the keyboard preferences, the resolution, and choose full-screen mode. Neatx supports session shadowing, the ability for multiple users to view and collaborate within the same NX session. For the moment that only works with sessions belonging to one user, so it's not that usable yet. Sharing of the X clipboard also works flawlessly.

A couple of things don't work yet. For example, terminating an open session from the session list isn't possible. The user first has to resume the session and then terminate it. Tunneling of sound, printers, and Samba are also not yet implemented. And Neatx doesn't support RDP (the remote desktop protocol for Windows) or VNC sessions, something that FreeNX does support. There are also still some loose ends because the code is still alpha. However, the Neatx Google Group is pretty active and already has some interesting suggestions for further developments, such as a jailed NX, enabling users to NX into a server while not being able to see any other user's data, and printer tunneling.

Although the simultaneous announcements of Google Chrome OS and Neatx seem to be pure coincidence, they both are based on the concept of a thin client. Chrome OS is a perfect operating system for the casual user with a netbook connected to internet, running most of the applications in a web browser. For applications that don't run inside the browser, a Neatx server on Google's or someone else's servers can offer a desktop "in the cloud" which can be accessed from everywhere. Google's own use of Neatx for virtual workstations shows that the thin client concept is reviving. Hopefully it will also revive developer's interest in contributing to a free NX server, which is an essential component for this development.

Comments (73 posted)

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