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.