Thin's back in

Thin clients are coming back into fashion, but Eliot Beer discovers there is still a gulf of understanding between vendors and end users on the technology.

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By  Eliot Beer Published  May 1, 2006

|~|thinclients-200.jpg|~|Rahman: There is growth in the market but it could do much better.|~|In the last couple of months both HP and Sun have updated their thin client (TC) product lines, with HP busy promoting them as the way forward for many larger businesses. But while thin client installations have been growing in the region, their growth is not keeping pace with regular server/desktop sales; so why the reluctance in the market?

"I think the biggest problem in the market is lack of knowledge about thin clients," says Junaid Rahman, category manager PSG Middle East for workstations and thin clients at HP. "Among larger enterprises people tend to be more switched on about the technology, but in smaller organisations they often don't know what a thin client is to start with, or else think it's an old-fashioned dumb terminal. There is growth in the market but it could do much better, and I think part of that comes from getting the message out about thin clients."

If ever there was a technology with an image problem, thin client is it. Between the slightly counter-intuitive nature of their workings, the associations with the ancient mainframe/greenscreen systems, and the unfamiliar appearance and specifications of the clients themselves, the big TC vendors sometimes have their work cut out to explain the value proposition.

Put simply, a thin client is a very low-spec PC which holds very little or no data locally, instead relying on processing and storage within the server. TCs range from simple models which only transmit keystrokes and mouse movements, and receive only screen data, to ones with a basic version of Windows running locally, which then deals with the processing of smaller applications, such as Java apps, which would otherwise clog the server.

The principle behind TCs is basically the same as dumb terminals, but the modern TC/server configuration compared to a terminal and a mainframe is far more advanced, and offers a great deal more flexibility than the original incarnation, at least according to the TC vendors.

But the big advantage now is the ability to manage security centrally, instead of machine-by-machine - only one anti virus suite to update; only one operating system to patch; and no issues with restoring users' PCs after a crash. Rahman also points out the security extends to users' actions as well.

"A big factor in choosing thin clients is security; if an organisation doesn't want even the chance of one of its employees taking data in or out, then TCs are the solution for them," he says. “There's also the aspect of hardware security; if you steal a TC, it's of no use to you - it has no internal components, and it's useless without the server. An organisation has a lot more options than with a PC when it comes to controlling a TC.

Rahman says HP currently has a number of sites running TCs in the Middle East, with the largest single site running to around 2,500 clients. In total the vendor has between 20,000 to 25,000 clients running in the region, all of which have been installed by HP's various partners and resellers. ||**|||~||~||~|Unsurprisingly, the most popular adopters of TCs tend to be firms running large call centre or customer-facing operations, or universities and other security-conscious organisations.
A sign of the increasing vitality of the TC market comes in the form of a new player in the region - Ardence - and its local partner Zener Electrical and Electronics, based in Abu Dhabi.

The Ardence solution takes a different line on the client/server model, by delivering actual application data which is executed on the local machine rather than the traditional TC model of transmitting key strokes and screen data.

"By using desktop machines to run the applications locally, you eliminate the need to have a high-performance server at the back end," says Ramesh Aidasani, manager for IT solutions and teaching systems at Zener. "In addition, this approach allows organisations to protect their existing investment in desktop PCs, instead of having to buy new thin client boxes."

Aidasani does acknowledge that bandwidth demands for this style of architecture may be higher than the HP model - using Citrix, Junaid claims bandwidth requirements as low as a few hundred kilobits a second. But Aidasani's estimate of between 1Mbit/s and 5Mbit/s are certainly not unreasonable, especially for a limited number of clients running.

HP's Rahman, though, is adamant that his firm's TC systems are not excessively power hungry at the back end. He claims that between 100 and 150 users running two to three typical office applications each can comfortably run on one 3GHz Pentium 4 server with 2GB RAM, although he hastens to point out that firms should take redundancy issues into account and not rely on a single server.

He also points out HP can configure existing PCs to behave as thin clients, if firms want to keep their existing desktop machines, for example if they are only recent purchases. But Rahman says one of the most difficult things he has to do with many clients is dispel their ideas regarding traditional PC specifications.

"One of the first reactions we usually get when customers see a thin client is: 'That's not what I thought it would be'. They expect a very small form factor PC; in fact TCs usually have no moving parts at all. Then there's a process of unlearning to go through where we get rid of the idea of gigahertz and megabytes. We have to get people used to the idea that this is just a machine for logging keystrokes."

Apart from such challenges, Rahman says HP's best selling thin client is its highest-spec model - whatever that happens to be at the time. He says he will often work to explain that less-powerful models would do the job with exactly the same efficiency at a lower cost, but claims the reaction of many customers is to take the "best one" - currently an AMD-powered model with a 1GHz Geode processor and Windows XP Embedded.

While the communications gap between vendors and customers over thin clients is apparent, there is certainly a market gap for secure, low-maintenance user terminals. The question is, are thin clients thin enough to squeeze in?||**||

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