Get Thin, Save Money?

A new generation of thin clients -- some from low-cost producers, as well as pricier alternatives from the likes of Sun Microsystems -- seeks to kick off yet another era

February 2, 2005

4 Min Read
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Thin clients started, of course, back when mainframe computers were all the rage and some people needed access to the big iron; back then, the clients were called "terminals." They were with us all the way into the enlightened age of personal computers, which pretty much made the terminals go away. Respected terminal makers such as Hazeltine closed up shop and crept away into the night, bemoaning the lack of business.

Then some computer people, principally those who had to administer PCs, discovered that it cost a lot of money to have the folks available to make sure those PCs ran as they should, had the proper IP stack installed, were secure, could be operated by their computer-illiterate users, and so forth. "Never fear," said a new generation of thin-client makers. "We'll save you that admin money and give you more features besides: better security, consistent user interface over the whole panoply of thin clients, and less management that you have to do."

Will a new generation of server-based computing emerge from this movement? Sun Microsystems, at least, is betting on it. The company took another step last month in the thin-client market, introducing new thin-client software as well as the Sun Ray 170 Ultra Thin Client, a new thin client with a 17-inch LCD monitor screen. Sun says its new offerings let customers save money and make admininstration a lot easier than was possible in the past.

Companies like National Computing Devices (NCD) no longer in business, and IBM, no longer in the business, made lots of noise about thin clients, but the concept has been slow to take off, according to Michael Kantrowitz, CEO of thin-client manufacturer Neoware Systems Inc., in King of Prussia, Pa. Neoware bought IBM's thin-client business a while ago, and has just purchased the thin-client business of Televideo, another old line terminal maker that got into the thin-client business back in the late eighties. "The thin-client business was low profile for a couple years," Kantrowitz says, "but it's now growing. We have had a seven-X increase in business in four years."

Kantrowitz says that the keys to thin clients are what they have been from the beginning -- cost, security, and management. Thin clients, with little or no local intelligence, are inexpensive. "Out thin clients start at $199," he says, "while the average of price of a business PC is about $700." Security advantages stem from being able to lock up your data on one server, not on 500 PCs, while management becomes easier because the intelligence is all on the server, not on the thin client itself. So managing turns out to be a simpler affair than if you're trying to take care of hundreds of PCs.Kevin Strohmeyer, product line manager in Sun's Client Systems Marketing, says Sun's new line contains all of those advantages. "We put all the intelligence on the server," Strohmeyer said. "The device on the desktop is just an Ethernet connection and a frame buffer. It's stateless." (He defines stateless in this context as having nothing on the desktop that would indicate local settings or application performance.)

The Sun products are a snap for administrative support, adds Strohmeyer. "Supporting one or 1000 of these devices is the exact same task," with all of the burden on the server, he says.

Indeed, other thin clients require some sort of local setup, although it's minimal in all cases. Such required setup includes selecting the protocol the client is supposed to use, perhaps telling it the IP address of the server, and similar settings. The Sun thin clients are plug-and-play, says Strohmeyer; with all of the intelligence in the server, admins can just plug in the client, it starts to look for the server right away, and they're done. Kantrowitz objects that you need a Sun server to run Sun thin clients, but Strohmeyer says that the new Sun Ray Server Software will run either on the SPARC architecture or on x86 architecture, so you can use your old x86-based servers to run the software under Linux.

Sun's new 170 Ultra Thin Client costs $1,049, so it's a bit pricey compared with the low-cost Neoware model. Sun offers a Web page where you can price a the different thin clients, but there doesn't seem to be one for pricing out the Sun Ray Server Software, which will cost more, of course. Forrester Research conducted a Total Economic Impact study of installing the clients, which can give you a better idea of the cost implications of the architecture.

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