Doesnt look like much

But does it represent the future of your customers’ organisations? Thin clients such as Sun Microsystems’ SunRay 100 are the face of a long-predicted shift in computing architecture, but this time around they are emerging as the heavyweights.

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By  Michelle Sturman Published  October 3, 2000

But does it represent the future of your customers' organisations? Thin clients such as Sun Microsystems' SunRay 100 are the face of a long-predicted shift in computing architecture, but this time around they are emerging as the heavyweights.

If it was possible for computers to feel emotions, thin clients would probably be breathing a deep sigh of relief about now.

They have been pulled from the scrap heap of computer history, more by virtue of circumstance than because they contain any specifically good technology, and now they look like facing a rosy future.

As the Internet assumes a rightful centre-stage in the function of businesses around the world, a set of circumstances under which thin client architecture will thrive, has come about.

As a result, the devices that were originally designed for the client-side are again being called into action. And this time, backed by the strength of new applications, they are the heavyweights.

“Today, we use a variety of smaller, simpler devices to get what we want from the network. The future will be filled with devices that are always on, always connected,” says Alan Townsend, director Sun Microsystems Middle East & Africa (MEA).

Of course, competition has stiffened too; the thin client of the ilk that Oracle CEO Larry Ellison began to evangelise in 1996 is now not substantially different and not of a substantially different cost to low-end PCs. But the secret is that none of that matters.

Thin client computing is not dependent on the much-hyped client itself in that specific hardware format, anyway.

When organisations choose to adopt devices such as a Sun Microsystems SunRay, or an IBM NetVista Thin Client, they are looking for the cost of ownership and—in Sun terminology—Hot Desk capabilities built into those. Acer has a similar device in the WT300, and Compaq’s offering is the T10xx or T15xx thin client.

The benefit of these devices is that they can be configured to the needs of the individual user (a set of configurations that are stored on a server and then downloaded to the device upon insertion of an individual’s smart card), as opposed to having a fixed configuration.

That is, the devices themselves are devoid of intelligence pretty much all together, and rely on an interaction with the server to which they are connected, triggered by the insertion of a user-configured smart card, for their functionality.

One smart card, configured for User A will make the device work one way, and another card, configured for User B, will make it work another.

“Sun’s SunRay 1 enterprise appliance takes the thin client model to its thinnest. End users get access to media-rich applications, while the system administrator manages everything on a server in the back room. Both sides get exactly what they want,” says Townsend.

All that, you probably know. And if none of this is news to you, you will also be aware that for the most part, the applications that such thin clients will be accessing will be browser-based applications.

The user will essentially attach to a server and begin using an application in much the same way as many of us today log on to send and receive email.

Oracle’s manager of Technology Solutions for the Middle East, Ayman Abousief says that at Oracle, that has been happening on a larger scale for some time already.

“What do you spend your day doing? You are probably logging into some applications to see the progress of a certain project, or how a certain salesperson is doing with a certain opportunity. [At Oracle], these applications are all browser-based,” says Abousief.

“They are based in our computer room here, or somewhere else in the world. But that was not the case when we were doing client/server. Some of the applications that I run today are based in the US. My email is browser-based, and located in the States.

"We have a single server that does all of Oracle’s email, which means the server is attended to 7x24 and highly available. In the past, if our server were to fail on a Friday, it just had to wait until Sunday when the IT person came in.”

But where the fundamental shift has come about that makes all of this a good idea when in 1996 it was decidedly flaky, is in the move towards the Internet and away from client/server computing.

In the Middle East today, we are gradually making that transition. In the United States, organisations have thrown themselves into it, headlong. Last year for example, in the United States there were next to no Application Service Providers (ASP) at all.

Now, there are at least 400 pure ASPs and many times that number of companies that offer a part of that traditional service.

No longer are US organisations simply willing to deploy thousands of seats of anything across their enterprises. They want to move the complexity of managing their applications into the hands of professionals, and rid themselves of the headache.

That is where the ASP comes onto the scene, and that is where there is a major need—current infrastructures being what they are—for light browser-based applications.

Which brings us full circle, and digging through that scrap heap of history, reviving the thin client. The world changed, making these devices relevant, and not before time.

But the world changed in more ways than one. When Larry Ellison launched his battle cry in 1996, it was at a time when PCs were US$2000 each and the total cost of owning one, many times that over the course of the device’s expected five year life-span. They were “too expensive, too hard to use, and totally unmanageable,” said Ellison.

Today, they are $700 each, and the nature of the way that organisations use them has changed to the extent where the management issues which previously plagued them and drove the cost of ownership up, are themselves, history.

“[Thin client] devices are catching up, although this whole pressure on the cost of ownership has driven PC prices to a point where they are so low that it is probably irrelevant whether you are using a full-fledged PC or anything else. If you are not using enterprise software on that PC, then you are using it as a thin client,” says Abousief.

In fact, the devices that organisations are using to access their hosted browser-based applications are often PCs themselves, playing the part of a thin client.

The browser is the most important piece of software on any PC today. The operating system, for that matter, scarcely matters, as long as browser releases are up-to-date, and support the operating system you are using.

An application written for Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.0 will run in that browser no matter what the operating system that browser is running on. What an entertaining concept. And the real advantage in that case, obviously, is for application developers.

“I look around today and see the absolute majority of our partners developing applications that run from the browser. I look at our own applications in release 11i, and it does not have a client/server version,” says Abousief.

“I look at all the new software we are doing, like exchanges, like relationship management, and it is all browser based.”

Townsend agrees on the importance of the browser. “The good stuff is on the Net, not on your hard drive. Old-fashioned notions about what a computer is, what it contains—a hard drive, a disk operating system—are becoming Internet road kill. Fact. We’re moving into the post PC era now,” says Townsend.

“Now even companies that were critical of the network computer, or thin client are offering versions of their own.”

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