The rise of the thin client?

Driving costs down is something on every network manager’s mind for the greater part of every day. A rising need for stability and reliability, a move towards software-service models and that ever-present TCO is fuelling renewed interest in thin clients.

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By  Jon Tullett Published  December 7, 2000

Introduction|~||~||~|As the power of the desktop becomes more prodigious with each passing year, thin client environments looks less and less appealing to most IT managers. Even a budget desktop PC has ample computing and storage capacity for everyday tasks, and LANs scale by a factor of ten every time the Ethernet vendors turn around. So why are thin client vendors so sure of their products' place?
The answer is not complex; it's about reducing costs, and improving services. Not capital expenditure on equipment, but long term running costs. Not new services, but the reliability of existing ones.
There are two types of thin clients; traditional ones, with no brains of their own besides the bare minimum required to connect to a server and update the display, and network computers, where storage resides centrally, but applications are downloaded (usually small-footprint applications to minimise load time) from the server and executed locally. This article is about the first kind - network computers have been almost entirely marginalized by high-performance storage networks combined with ample local storage and processor power on the desktop; all of the advantages of the NC but none of the drawbacks.
Thin clients, then, are dumb devices which are little more than a window onto the real user environment, all of which runs on a server, sending screen updates and multimedia across the network to the client station, wherever it may reside.
Cost issues aside, the benefits are very clear. Completely centralised storage and management, meaning all changes, upgrades, backups and other tasks can be performed on a single system, and be immediately reflected to all users. The saving in IT administration is enormous; TCO of a network environment is mostly made up of administering PCs. Thin clients make that go away instantly. Take away one station and replace it with another and the user won't even know the difference. That same user can log in through any appropriate terminal (on the LAN, across the Internet, possibly by VPN, and so on) and have access to the same documents, resources and applications.
||**||Not a popular choice|~||~||~|
Despite the benefits of a thin client environment, it's not a popular choice for network managers, often because the now traditional PC client-server model has a great deal of momentum - many organisations have a large number of PCs and smallish servers. Migrating to thin clients would mean losing a significant part of the value of those PCs.
More likely is a mixed environment; thin clients can be deployed to provide a specific set of low-demand users access to certain applications, such as data capture or call centre agents. Haider Salloum, business systems division product manager Microsoft Gulf, says this is the most appealing option to companies in the region. "A lot of customers are interested, and most will have both; PCs for the knowledge workers, and thin clients for 'task workers'," he says.
Microsoft ships Windows2000 with support for the company's Terminal Services, which not only provide thin client access to applications running on the server, but also allows for remote management of the server by mirroring the system console.
But there have been other issues holding back companies from thin clients in this region, Salloum points out. "The lack of Arabic support in NT4 was a big issue; users could only run non-Arabic software on the server. The Unicode support in Windows 2000 has solved that, and now it's doing really well."
Sun Microsystems' regional manager Allen Townsend has similar issues with Sun's SunRay series of thin client devices. "We're finalising the Arabisation of our applications, especially StarOffice." Townsend indicates that despite this, there is a great deal of interest in thin client environments in the region. "We're seeing great interest in government applications, such as passport control, and in education too; we're involved in an enormous bid at present for an educational institution," he says. Sun has had far from glowing success with the SunRays in the region, but Townsend expects that to change. "We've sold quite a few, but less than we'd like," he says. "But we expect to win in the educational business." The smart-card access mechanism featured in Sun's equipment is "perfectly suited to student environments," he adds.
Microsoft's Salloum says other areas where thin clients will be particularly popular are in small companies with remote branches needing access to specific applications, such as sales databases, particularly for batch transactions. Using a browser interface to access the application at the host via direct dial-up or the Internet, there is no need to remote install client software or perform other costly maintenance tasks. "This will be popular in reducing wide area network costs," Salloum predicts.
||**||Application Service Providers|~||~||~|
Wide area thin clients leads easily into an emerging market; Application Service Providers.
For ASPs, providing access to remotely hosted applications is a fundamental part of doing business. Thin clients are clearly a possible channel for them, but in reality the difficulties faced by ASPs are similar to any thin client vendor - a strong PC momentum, and a lack of understanding of the benefits. In addition, modern Internet browsers are able to extend most typical ASP data application across the Internet to any device, thin client or not.
ASPGulf, the UAE's pioneering application host, is deploying the usual gamut of back-end applications to offer clients; ERP, financial applications, data warehousing. But in the mix is included office productivity software - Microsoft Office and Exchange.
ASPGulf CEO Duncan Watson says he doesn't expect much demand for these last few applications yet, but they are there to prove that it can be done. "There won't be much demand for a couple of years," he says. "But soon, users will be purchasing software, and they will express an interest in ASP alternatives. After that, they'll be investigating ASP offerings, and maybe price purchasing it. Eventually, it'll all be hosted."
Microsoft is certainly keen on this idea; its .NET model is firmly founded on the concept of rented software, hired components and leased services. Watson's choice of Microsoft products is positioned for just this model to move into the market.
"Obviously thin clients are going to get more important down the track - the mere fact that we can take the load off the PC as far as Office and exchange and do everything on the ASP model makes the thin client attractive," Watson says.
Much of what an ASP can offer can be implemented in-house by a large organisation, but Watson is quick to point out the additional benefits an ASP can offer, such the obvious economies of scale, enhanced security, and much more resilient data environments; all facilities beyond the budget of most organisations.
Microsoft's Salloum likens the deployment of thin client environments to electrical utilities. Everyone requires electricity, but few want the responsibility of running a power station, he says. There is no need to build infrastructure you don't need, or to pay for services when you are not drawing on them.
||**||Resistance from users|~||~||~|
The soft issues frequently get in the way of pure logic, though. Corporate users strongly oppose the removal of their desktop environments.
"People tend to think the corporate PC is their own," Salloum says. "Often there is resistance. But you have to educate the users about the benefits."
Once users are aware of the benefits, they will come around to the idea of a "soft office", with users able to use any workstation or work on the move, more readily, Sun's Watson says. "The office PC is seen as a power-base," he adds. "A lot of education is needed. But it's not intended to be a PC replacement - you won't use a thin client for every application."
Although the marketing pitches are similar, there is a strong difference between players in the field. Sun and Microsoft, for instance, do not view each other as direct competition, because the products are targeted at different environments, although Watson and Salloum both pinpoint the same markets (government and financial) as hot areas, and Watson goes further to say that "there is definitely a limited market here."
Microsoft's Terminal Services are low-bandwidth, driving applications out over potentially relatively poor connections (22kbps minimum), which makes the software appealing to WAN environments. In contrast, Sun's offering is much more complex, with peripheral services such as multimedia and authentication included, suiting it more for LAN markets. In fact, Townsend is planning to use the existing server channel, where the company is selling its successful Enterprise 10000 servers, as a channel for SunRays, since the thin client environment requires a heavy investment in the server back-end. "It's an architectural sell," Townsend says, in contrast to Microsoft's application focus. "We're selling a whole infrastructure."
Should you be using thin clients? Evaluating your network is not easily done. Most thin client sells push the TCO angle hard, but without providing clear metrics on how to calculate the real benefits. Small businesses in particular struggle to add up the pros and cons, opening the door for a consulting role in the channel. "It might not be possible for a small business to quantify savings," says Salloum. "You need a third party auditor of consultant. We encourage customers to go to top-tier resellers and auditors. There are a lot of issues, but you don't need 100% accuracy - just to get a feel for it." If there are benefits to be had, they should be apparent, he says, making the decision easier.
||**||Work to be done|~||~||~|
In time, ASPs themselves may prove to fulfil the role of both channel (for services such as Microsoft's), and educators for solutions like Sun's. As companies like ASPGulf educate the market about the benefits of both outsourced and centralised hosted environments, many may opt for an in-house project themselves, using thin client devices, web browsers and, in the future, mobile wireless devices such as PDAs and mobile phones too.
Vendors aside, there is a lot of work to be done in companies to get users and administrators to warm up about thin clients. To many, it seems like little more than a regression to mainframe days, and in many ways it is that - mainframe environments offered a great deal in terms of stability, but coupled with that is a modern approach to management and services. If you have dedicated IT tasks, especially using client-server systems, such as data capture, ERP, POS and the like, thin clients could be a very worthwhile investment. The commensurate improvement in the data centre will be an immediately advantage, and while the start-up costs in the back-end may seem intimidating, the end result is likely to be beneficial.
In many cases, obsolete PC equipment can be pressed into service as access devices running client software such as a basic browser, or more sophisticated thin client environments such as Citrix WinFrame. And by introducing thin clients and redistributing existing desktop machines, investments in desktop equipment can be delayed, and the existing investment prolonged.
Using thin clients can also be a solid first step to extending applications to mobile users, and to empowering users who need to travel, giving them access to high-level backend software that would normally require LAN access, whilst ensuring strong security and data integrity throughout. The risk of theft or damage to the mobile device is minimised, and so long as a reliable Internet connection is available, a travelling executive need never feel like an exile again.||**||

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