Apple TV: The Potential Disked Thin Client

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As is inevitible with all training classes, one starts talking about new products and their potentials. In our Server Essentials class, we started talking about potential Mac OS X Server installs that are relatively inexpensive. Most people may be aware that the Mac Mini can support a Server install, though we are unaware of whether or not recent updates will break it. It seems that this happens with Laptop installs which are not technically supported by Apple anyway.

But then the question came up about thin clients. I have been interested in thin clients since I worked for the Salt Lake Community College, and saw it as a potential cost-savings for a lab deployment. My arguments didn't go anywhere at that point, but with my recent focus on Apple and their deployment options, the idea has sprung up again. The Mac Mini had seemed like the perfect option, until recently.

Enter the Apple TV/Mac Micro
Since the Apple TV has been shipped (i.e., within 8 days), the machine has been hacked. This is because it is basically a stripped down computer with really good graphics and a 1 Ghz Intel processor. It only has 256 MB RAM that is soldered onto the motherboard, so it's not like it's going to be a killer device, but it is a lot better than the Windows machine I gave up in order to get my G4 Powerbook.

Since that shipping day, the kind people at Appletvhacks.net has managed to work out a Mac OS X 10.4.8 install for the Apple TV. Yes, that's right. They managed to install a full fledged Apple OS onto that small device that was only meant to display iTunes material on your TV. This was achieved by removing the Apple TV's hard drive, connecting it to a Mac, installing the OS, and then using a processor emulation written by semthex from Hackint0sh.org. The end result was a smaller Mac Mini with only one drive (no optical drives or media), one USB port for a keyboard and mouse (if the mouse is plugged into the keyboard), and multiple video out options.

Now, I want this understood.. I wouldn't be deathmatching on this machine, or expect any high end applications to work on it. But if you were working in a lab environment, and you needed to deploy several workstations to use Office software, email, and browse the web, then it's perfect! And that, basically, is pretty much all a thin client would need to do.

The One Mortal Drawback
Well, as I was reading these hacks, I started to wonder: What if you could boot off of a NetBoot image?! That would make the Apple TV act as a diskless client, and save a lot of hassle in getting the machine set up.

Well, unfortunately, it's not possible with the current version of Apple TV. As published by Macintouch.com in their Review of the Apple TV, the standard Network boot key combinations were not successful. So, in order to get the Apple TV to work as a thin client, you would need to open the Apple TV, remove the Hard Drive, set it up, then put it back. Bugger, just when I thought it would be the perfect solution for a low-powered, barely funded lab deployment, I got shot down.

But, the fact that it is possible, and that there are additional potentials for this type of market makes the future of the Apple TV both exciting and terrifying. What if Apple shuts down the hack by restricting access to the drive, or the inside of the device? What if they shut down any potential access to the device through hardware chips blocking any USB access, even when outside of the Apple TV interface? Hopefully they will not, and allow hackers to modify the device to suit their own needs.