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Tue, 01 May 2012

The Most Awesome, Least-Advertised Fedora 17 Feature

There's one feature In the upcoming Fedora 17 release that is immensly useful but very little known, since its feature page 'ckremoval' does not explicitly refer to it in its name: true automatic multi-seat support for Linux.

A multi-seat computer is a system that offers not only one local seat for a user, but multiple, at the same time. A seat refers to a combination of a screen, a set of input devices (such as mice and keyboards), and maybe an audio card or webcam, as individual local workplace for a user. A multi-seat computer can drive an entire class room of seats with only a fraction of the cost in hardware, energy, administration and space: you only have one PC, which usually has way enough CPU power to drive 10 or more workplaces. (In fact, even a Netbook has fast enough to drive a couple of seats!) Automatic multi-seat refers to an entirely automatically managed seat setup: whenever a new seat is plugged in a new login screen immediately appears -- without any manual configuration --, and when the seat is unplugged all user sessions on it are removed without delay.

In Fedora 17 we added this functionality to the low-level user and device tracking of systemd, replacing the previous ConsoleKit logic that lacked support for automatic multi-seat. With all the ground work done in systemd, udev and the other components of our plumbing layer the last remaining bits were surprisingly easy to add.

Currently, the automatic multi-seat logic works best with the USB multi-seat hardware from Plugable you can buy cheaply on Amazon (US). These devices require exactly zero configuration with the new scheme implemented in Fedora 17: just plug them in at any time, login screens pop up on them, and you have your additional seats. Alternatively you can also assemble your seat manually with a few easy loginctl attach commands, from any kind of hardware you might have lying around. To get a full seat you need multiple graphics cards, keyboards and mice: one set for each seat. (Later on we'll probably have a graphical setup utility for additional seats, but that's not a pressing issue we believe, as the plug-n-play multi-seat support with the Plugable devices is so awesomely nice.)

Plugable provided us for free with hardware for testing multi-seat. They are also involved with the upstream development of the USB DisplayLink driver for Linux. Due to their positive involvement with Linux we can only recommend to buy their hardware. They are good guys, and support Free Software the way all hardware vendors should! (And besides that, their hardware is also nicely put together. For example, in contrast to most similar vendors they actually assign proper vendor/product IDs to their USB hardware so that we can easily recognize their hardware when plugged in to set up automatic seats.)

Currently, all this magic is only implemented in the GNOME stack with the biggest component getting updated being the GNOME Display Manager. On the Plugable USB hardware you get a full GNOME Shell session with all the usual graphical gimmicks, the same way as on any other hardware. (Yes, GNOME 3 works perfectly fine on simpler graphics cards such as these USB devices!) If you are hacking on a different desktop environment, or on a different display manager, please have a look at the multi-seat documentation we put together, and particularly at our short piece about writing display managers which are multi-seat capable.

If you work on a major desktop environment or display manager and would like to implement multi-seat support for it, but lack the aforementioned Plugable hardware, we might be able to provide you with the hardware for free. Please contact us directly, and we might be able to send you a device. Note that we don't have unlimited devices available, hence we'll probably not be able to pass hardware to everybody who asks, and we will pass the hardware preferably to people who work on well-known software or otherwise have contributed good code to the community already. Anyway, if in doubt, ping us, and explain to us why you should get the hardware, and we'll consider you! (Oh, and this not only applies to display managers, if you hack on some other software where multi-seat awareness would be truly useful, then don't hesitate and ping us!)

Phoronix has this story about this new multi-seat support which is quite interesting and full of pictures. Please have a look.

Plugable started a Pledge drive to lower the price of the Plugable USB multi-seat terminals further. It's full of pictures (and a video showing all this in action!), and uses the code we now make available in Fedora 17 as base. Please consider pledging a few bucks.

Recently David Zeuthen added multi-seat support to udisks as well. With this in place, a user logged in on a specific seat can only see the USB storage plugged into his individual seat, but does not see any USB storage plugged into any other local seat. With this in place we closed the last missing bit of multi-seat support in our desktop stack.

With this code in Fedora 17 we cover the big use cases of multi-seat already: internet cafes, class rooms and similar installations can provide PC workplaces cheaply and easily without any manual configuration. Later on we want to build on this and make this useful for different uses too: for example, the ability to get a login screen as easily as plugging in a USB connector makes this not useful only for saving money in setups for many people, but also in embedded environments (consider monitoring/debugging screens made available via this hotplug logic) or servers (get trivially quick local access to your otherwise head-less server). To be truly useful in these areas we need one more thing though: the ability to run a simply getty (i.e. text login) on the seat, without necessarily involving a graphical UI.

The well-known X successor Wayland already comes out of the box with multi-seat support based on this logic.

Oh, and BTW, as Ubuntu appears to be "focussing" on "clarity" in the "cloud" now ;-), and chose Upstart instead of systemd, this feature won't be available in Ubuntu any time soon. That's (one detail of) the price Ubuntu has to pay for choosing to maintain it's own (largely legacy, such as ConsoleKit) plumbing stack.

Multi-seat has a long history on Unix. Since the earliest days Unix systems could be accessed by multiple local terminals at the same time. Since then local terminal support (and hence multi-seat) gradually moved out of view in computing. The fewest machines these days have more than one seat, the concept of terminals survived almost exclusively in the context of PTYs (i.e. fully virtualized API objects, disconnected from any real hardware seat) and VCs (i.e. a single virtualized local seat), but almost not in any other way (well, server setups still use serial terminals for emergency remote access, but they almost never have more than one serial terminal). All what we do in systemd is based on the ideas originally brought forward in Unix; with systemd we now try to bring back a number of the good ideas of Unix that since the old times were lost on the roadside. For example, in true Unix style we already started to expose the concept of a service in the file system (in /sys/fs/cgroup/systemd/system/), something where on Linux the (often misunderstood) "everything is a file" mantra previously fell short. With automatic multi-seat support we bring back support for terminals, but updated with all the features of today's desktops: plug and play, zero configuration, full graphics, and not limited to input devices and screens, but extending to all kinds of devices, such as audio, webcams or USB memory sticks.

Anyway, this is all for now; I'd like to thank everybody who was involved with making multi-seat work so nicely and natively on the Linux platform. You know who you are! Thanks a ton!

posted at: 23:07 | path: /projects | permanent link to this entry | comments


It should be obvious but in case it isn't: the opinions reflected here are my own. They are not the views of my employer, or Ronald McDonald, or anyone else.

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Lennart Poettering <mzoybt (at) 0pointer (dot) net>
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