A New Twist to Virtual Desktop Cloud Computing

Desktop as a Service provider Shells offers a new component to virtual cloud computing. It brings Linux distros and Windows 10 to any computer, mobile device, and some game consoles, via any Web browser.

The U.S.-based startup went online in the first quarter of last year. Since then, CEO and founder Alex Lee has been drumming up favorable responses from businesses, casual users, and Linux developers. The cloud computing alternative to Chromebooks and aging computers is also becoming an attractive offering to schools, noted Lee.

Shells are virtual desktop cloud computers accessible from any Web-enabled device. The Shells platform turns idle screens into full-fledged computers capable of running all the applications necessary to work, learn, code, and create at home or on the move.

Lee’s approach to cloud computing offers four tiers (Lite, Basic, Plus, and Pro) catering to casual users and professionals alike. Preloaded virtual machines — dubbed shells — come in a variety of options to meet all user scenarios. The platform closes the digital divide as it relates to fair and equal access to computers for everyone, according to the CEO.

Even if you are not an IT specialist, don’t give up on the idea of migrating your computing needs to the cloud. The process picks up where old-school thin clients connected users to rows of mainframe computers. Shells puts an entirely new spin on usability by delivering a fast, personalized virtual desktop environment powered by cloud computers which are located in datacenters around the world.

“We believe our product is much easier to set up than any other solution currently available as well as providing very affordable options. We also offer multiple operating systems which no other operation offers today. Whether you are a developer or a light computer user, Shells is easy to use for all, and our pricing is very straight-forward with no hidden costs,” Lee told LinuxInsider.

Developing a Mission

Lee, who previously owned and sold a virtual private network (VPN) operation, thought about a cloud-delivered simplified computing system for a while. He moved the plan into the startup phase when he recognized the timing was right. Some of the advancements in technology, as well as the speed of the Internet and especially the debut of 5G wireless networks, put all the needed pieces in place. Lee”We have had our share of challenges from a development standpoint in terms of making sure our product interacts well with all the different browsers and platforms from iOS to Android to Windows to macOS,” said Lee.

He started out with the intention of his main users to be just consumers looking for an easy way to solve their computing needs. Lee also saw his mission as a way to focus on the software development and Linux communities. Both groups gain significant benefits from being able to test and deploy from the same device by having access to multiple operating systems.

During the development phase, Lee saw a greater opportunity with closing the digital divide. His goals shifted to offering an opportunity to students and the ability to utilize any device as a full-blown computer.

“With the pandemic creating the increasing need for remote learning, the demand for computers has led to a shortage for students. Shells can give these students an opportunity to utilize their tablets or even smart TVs for computers. Old laptops and Chromebooks can also be enhanced and utilized as ‘new’ computers when using Shells on them,” explained the Shells founder.

Combining Platforms

So why offer both Linux and Windows operating systems? Familiarity for users and convenience for developers is partly the reason. Lee has always been an avid Linux user and a strong supporter of the open-source community and the different Linux distributions.

“Therefore, it was a given for us to offer multiple Linux options, and we continue to add additional Linux distro options as we grow,” he answered.

Windows was also important to have as an option for the light computer users as this is the platform with which they are most likely familiar, he continued. The Windows or Linux mix created flexibility for his customers.

“They can use different operating systems across different devices, so there is a fit for everyone,” he noted.

Geographic location is not an issue, noted Lee. Initially, the company’s service area was the U.S. mainland. But Shells is now more global in its reach.

Although the company is based in the U.S., Lee rolled out server locations in Amsterdam and Tokyo to start expanding. He has immediate plans to also expand to Seoul, South Korea

“As we grow, we will continue to add locations globally,” he offered.

Stirring the Mix

Shells currently offers Ubuntu Desktop, Lubuntu, and Ubuntu Server. The company also has beta versions of Xubuntu, Kubuntu, Fedora Workstation, KDE Plasma and Neon, and Manjaro available.

Users have the option to install any of these distros on their Shell cloud computer. Even better, the installation process and ease-of-use are so modern that users can start off with one operating system and within minutes — literally — add another Shell with a different Linux distribution or swap out one operating system for another.

Lee plans to offer new ways to work with Shells for people. He will port those new uses as well as features for companies and schools to make the best out of the service. He is also looking into offering GPU systems for gaming and similar.

Each Linux installation includes a pre-configuration of basic software. The user adds whatever additional software is needed. Software and system updates happen in the cloud machine the same as it does on bare-metal local computers.

You can easily create additional shells to run separate distros or quickly replace one installation for others in a single Shell. Similarly, you can change to other desktop environments.

Impressive Delivery

The Shells VM alternative process really is quick and simple. I was impressed with how fast and easy Shells handles installation and software management.

In a shared cloud connection with Lee during a live video interview, I viewed a real-time demonstration of how Shells works. I watched Lee load a Shell with Ubuntu Linux pre-configured and then delete it. Next, he replaced it with an installation of Manjaro Linux in less than one minute.

If you are familiar with Linux, you probably recognize that Ubuntu, a Debian-based Linux OS, is a newcomer’s delight to install and configure. Manjaro Linux, on the other hand, lives within the Arch Linux family architecture and is much less amenable to installations by newcomers.

“We have been actively working with the different Linux distributions/communities in order to provide options for their users to access or test the respective distributions without having do installs on their hardware. There has been a lot of interest from the Linux users,” said Lee.

He has not had that much interest from a business standpoint, but he also has not really marketed to that sector yet.

A Virtual Unwrapping

The computing shells offer users a solid security footing. Shell connections are encrypted and authenticated using the Transport Layer Security (TLS) standard. This is the same security standard used to connect to banks and other financial agencies, Lee said. Additionally, users have the option to set up two-factor authentication on their account in order to secure access further, ensuring the best possible level of security.

“Shells deliver VMs that match the industry’s best practices in terms of technology and performances, similar to what you would find at most high-quality cloud providers. We are always researching and applying new technology that allows us to offer a better service and will add new technologies that come up,” he added.

User location in comparison to the server placement can impact latency. To mitigate that factor, Shells strategically located its servers around the United States.

The tier plan selected can also influence the virtual OS’s performance, Lee admitted. The more virtual CPUs and memory selected, the faster Shells runs. The Linux variety also can impact performance dependent on available memory in the VM shell.

Shells’ lowest package offers the minimum requirements. That’s one vCPU and two gigabytes of memory.

Those lower specs can utilize Linux distros such as Lubuntu, which was specifically designed to use as minimal resources as possible. Lubuntu runs at 300 MB of RAM normally, while Ubuntu Desktop default will run at about 800 MB. Kubuntu runs at about 800 MB to 1 GB of RAM.

Selling Shells

One of Lee’s lingering hurdles is explaining to potential customers how they can benefit from cloud computing using Shells. Part of that agenda is helping to impact more Linux adoption.

“We believe that Shells will help bring in the users who were on the fence with jumping into Linux — whether they were scared to install it on their hardware or had difficulty doing so when they did try to make the change,” he said.

Shells is obviously a great environment for users to test Linux out, but it is also a great place to manage multiple operating systems within one device, as opposed to dual-booting, for example, he added.

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