It has been two years since Linux Format magazine last reported on Ulteo.
Back then, we all thought it was going to be a standard new Linux distribution created by Gaël Duval, the founder of Mandrake Linux.
If you take a look at Ulteo.com today, you won't find any mention of Linux on the home page. Not only that, but everything about the Ulteo site is slightly confusing. It's very difficult to understand what Ulteo is and what it might do, thanks to some rather vague statements and the use of some very stylised 'lifestyle' illustrations. But Ulteo is actually four distinct technologies.
You'll see a reference to the 'Ulteo Online Desktop' and the 'Ulteo Application System' on the main page, and behind the scenes you can also download two further tools called the 'Ulteo Virtual Desktop' and the 'Windows Document Synchroniser'. Each of these use Linux to a greater or lesser extent, but not in the way you might imagine.
So what is it?
Rather than offering a simple email service, or even an office suite of applications, the Online Desktop is more ambitious. As its name implies, it's a desktop that can be accessed through a web browser. Your session is stored on the Ulteo servers, and you can access your desktop from anywhere with an internet connection as well as share the session with other people.
It's thin client computing without the corporate shell, and Ulteo.com markets the whole package as a 'My Digital Life Made Simple'. After the online desktop comes the Ulteo Application System. This is designed to complement the Online Desktop by offering a local installation. Your first thought might be 'Aha! Here's the long-awaited Ulteo Linux Distribution', but things aren't quite as they first seem.
It's very difficult to find any information about the Application System without installing it, and when you do, you quickly realise that this is an offline version of the Online Desktop rather than being a standalone distribution. It's tied to your online Ulteo account, for example, so if you happen to travel a lot, or commonly use more than one machine, this could be a real boon. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
The Ulteo Online Desktop
Without the Online Desktop sitting at the centre of the Ulteo vision, none of the other elements would make any sense. Firefox and Internet Explorer are officially supported, and you also need Java runtime 1.5+ installed (there are some reported problems with Ubuntu's 8.04 Java package).
Ideally, you also need a broadband internet connection, but the quality of the desktop adapts to changing network conditions, much like VNC, and dial-up speeds are supported. After you've created an account on Ulteo.com, you then need to click on the 'Start Now' button. This takes to you a further page that lists the four core Ulteo technologies.
The first two offer virtual desktops, while the second offer the offline desktops. Clicking on the Online Desktop option takes you to a further page where you can fine tune your language and connection settings, and it's from here you can finally launch the Java application that will contain your desktop session.
A few moments later, depending on the speed of your connection, you'll see your first view of the Ulteo desktop. This is a complete and isolated Linux session that's piped to your session window from somewhere in the internet, and it's possible to configure a web proxy if your machine is running behind a restrictive firewall.
If you've ever used VNC for desktop sharing over a network, it will feel very familiar. There's the same kind of JPEG artefacts that hang on to the edges of the graphics, blurring the definition sightly, and the screen will update in blocks of graphics, rather than a more intelligent window frame approach as used by NX, for instance. But unlike NX, there's no sound support, although that is promised in a future update. If you're using a 1- or 2MB broadband connection, the desktop is reasonably responsive.
This is in contrast to the typical VNC session, which is often hampered by the upload speed of your internet connection, which is typically many multiples smaller than the download speed. Ulteo's servers obviously don't have the same restriction, which is just as well, and upload speeds on the Ulteo servers aren't a bottleneck.
Ulteo is built on top of an older version of Kubuntu, and like the original Mandrake, it's KDE-centric, using version 3.5.2. This means there's a lot of graphical information to transfer across the network, and there has been very minimal curtailing of animation effects to help reduce the bandwidth.
The custom KDE menu, for example, scrolls and slides as you navigate through the list of installed applications, which can make the session feel a little awkward when you first connect.
The menu is the biggest visual difference between a default KDE installation and Ulteo, and that's because it's actually a KDE project called KBFX. This is something of a sprawling monster of an application in the best tradition of KDE development. It has embedded file and HTML browsing alongside the scrolling application lists, and it takes a bit of getting used to.
The theme styles and graphics have been updated to reflect the Ulteo livery, both in the menu and on the desktop, and there's very little left to give away its Ubuntu heritage. The KDE installation has been locked down, and it's basically running in kiosk mode. This means there are no system configuration tools and no package installer, but most importantly, it means there's no command line console either. This is understandable for security and stability, but many Linux users are going to miss the convenience of typing commands directly.
Fortunately, almost everything you're likely to need is already installed. There's a complete OpenOffice.org 3 installation, Firefox for browsing and Thunderbird for email, along with Kopete for instant messaging and DigiKam for photos.
Strangely, several multimedia applications are also included. But as there's no sound output with the Online client, there's little point in using them. You also have limited access rights to the filesystem, with your home directory being the only place you can store files. You can use your home directory just as you would the local equivalent, and Ulteo provides up to 1GB of online storage with its free accounts, and up to 10GB if you're prepared to pay.
The Ulteo distribution
The next most important project on Ulteo.com is called the Ulteo Application System. It's a 650MB ISO image, which needs to be burned and booted from just as you would any other Linux distribution. That's because this is essentially the Live CD version of Kubuntu, though this isn't immediately obvious, thanks to the spooky artwork that reminds us of Antony Gormley's Another Place sculpture off the shore of Crosby Beach near Liverpool in the UK.
As with Kubuntu, you can use the desktop just as you would a standard installation, and everything looks almost identical to its online counterpart – only this time, the distribution is running on your hardware, so you can do what you like with it.
You can also access the Ulteo online services, but that doesn't make much sense from a Live CD. For this to work, you need a network connection. And if you've got a network connection, you might as well use the Online Desktop and save yourself the trouble of booting a CD.
Permanent installation is through an icon placed on the backdrop, and takes around 20 minutes, hardware permitting. One reboot later, and you're dropped into Gaël Duval's sequel to Mandrake. Unlike the online version, this is a fully fledged Linux installation, and it's stuffed full of the same applications you'll find in an average Kubuntu installation.
Unsurprisingly, it looks much like the online version, including the heavily populated menu and desktop background. And this alludes to one feature that Ulteo does have over Linux installations. It can synchronise a specific local folder with a sync folder on your your Ulteo Online account. Every 30 minutes, the contents of both directories are checked for any changes, and any differences either uploaded or downloaded so that the contents match.
There's a 10MB limit in the file size, and with the free version, you get up to 1GB of online storage. You can increase this to 10GB by spending some money. And the folder synchronisation feature isn't just restricted to the Application System and the Online Desktop, it can also help users of Microsoft Windows.
The third major technology in Ulteo is the Virtual Desktop, and this is where things get interesting: "Enjoy the power of your Linux applications on Windows without any need to reboot the system!" is what it says on the UIteo website, and accordingly, the 510MB download will only work on Microsoft Windows. But that doesn't mean it isn't Linux.
The Virtual Desktop is based on something called CoLinux, a term short for Cooperative Linux. CoLinux is a set of modifications made to the Linux kernel that let it coexist, running at the same time, with the kernel of another operating system. In the case of Ulteo, this means that both Windows and Ulteo Linux can run at the same time.
You might think you can do this already with virtual machines, but there are a couple of advantage to using CoLinux. The first is that the user doesn't need to know or even care about what a virtual machine is. As easy as apps like VirtualBox and VMware are to use, they still add an extra layer of complexity. Secondly, CoLinux integrates the Linux applications directly into the host OS, rather than the isolated container of a virtual machine.
Linux on Windows
From Windows, when you click on the Virtual Desktop executable, the installer that appears is a native windows application, and it takes around five minutes to install the entire desktop. Several Windows drivers are installed at the same time, adding virtual network devices to your Windows installation – just like VMware, and these enable Ulteo to access the network. It's quite a surprise when you first run the application, because there's very little to see.
The only hint that anything is different is the 'kicker' window visible in the task bar – an unnerving sight on a Windows desktop. This is a sign that KDE's task manager is running, and it's tucked away off the top border of the screen so that it can't interfere with the Windows panel at the bottom of the screen.
Moving your mouse to this edge slides the kicker into view, and from there, you can launch Konqueror for file browsing, or open the Konsole command line and you'll be able access the files stored on the virtual Linux disk, and those within your Windows filesystem. If you need to use Windows to copy files to your Ulteo installation, you need to quit Ulteo and use a third-party application to mount the virtual disk image Ulteo uses for storage.
As with a virtual machine, it is fairly processor-intensive, taking around 40% of our 2GHz Core 2 Duo processor in spurts. But regardless of this drawback. it's all very impressive, and it's as responsive as a native Linux desktop. It's a great way to get access to Amarok, for instance, or use the Linux command line to manipulate Windows files. It's also infinitely easier to install than Cygwin, which offers similar features.
We only noticed a couple of problems, but a couple of oddities. Click and drag an Ulteo application, for example, and the rate at which it scrolls across your desktop is different to that of native Windows apps. Also, there's only limited control over additional package installation.
The My Settings page of the launch menu is synchronised to your online Ulteo account, and from here you can install a further group of desktop apps, or some popular Linux games. Packages are downloaded and installed in the background.
You could use dpkg to install applications manually, but your system will quickly get out of sync with the official Ulteo release, and as a result, won't be updated. As with the Online Desktop and the Application System, you can also bind your Virtual Desktop installation to your Ulteo account through the 'My Settings' page of the menu. This will enable the folder synchronisation feature, and it works just as well as with the online and offline desktop.
It's obvious that Ulteo is still a work in progress. There are parts of the KDE menu, for example, that aren't functional, and Gaël Duval openly admits that there's a problem with online latency in parts of the world. But it's also easy to see that there's been a lot of innovation across the Ulteo product range.
The Online Desktop itself is clever and works well, and the CoLinux implementation used by the Application System has obviously taken a lot of work to get right.
Even though Ulteo isn't a traditional Linux distribution, its success can only enhance the image of Linux, and bring more people into the fold. And like the original Mandrake Linux, that can only be a good thing.
First published in Linux Format, Issue 113
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