In the mid-1990s Sun and Oracle hailed thin client devices as the successors to business PCs. Today it looks as though technology has caught up with the vision. Jessica Twentyman reviews the pros and cons of replacing traditional PCs with simpler units which are cheap, versatile and easy to manage
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Bloated, expensive and unmanageable: for many IT directors, the corporate desktop PC has become a monster they can no longer control. They are locked, they say, into an almost-constant battle with this beast, struggling to manage applications, upgrade software patches and maintain machines scattered throughout the company, built from different components to multiple specifications.
This has led to spiralling costs. Analysts at IT market research company Gartner estimate that, although the average cost of a typical corporate desktop is just £425, the lifetime cost of each machine is likely to be nearer £2,000.
No wonder then that many IT directors have had enough, especially those that have achieved efficiencies in the datacentre by consolidating and virtualising server and storage resources, and who are not prepared to see those gains obviated by the costs of running the corporate desktop estate.
As a result, many are taking another look at an old idea: network computing. Back in the mid-1990s, Oracle chief executive Larry Ellison and Sun Microsystems' chief executive Scott McNealy boasted that the so-called 'network computer' - essentially a thin client device used to access applications and information running on a back-end server - would in time kill off the corporate PC.
However, their vision - in reality, a thinly disguised broadside against the growing dominance of software giant Microsoft - was flawed. In particular, it placed heavy constraints on end-users. Only relatively simple applications were suited to the centralised approach they proposed, and fewer still could cope with the paucity of bandwidth available over pre-megabit Ethernet networks.
A lot has changed since then. Network bandwidth is now plentiful and there are very few applications that cannot be delivered effectively over a thin client architecture. According to Fraser Kyne, field product marketing manager at thin client software specialist Citrix, 95% of applications typically found on a corporate PC can be accessed by a thin client from a server running Citrix's Metaframe product.
That makes the thin client an attractive proposition for many organisations. According to Gartner, approximately 1.3 million thin client terminal hardware units were shipped in the worldwide market in 2003 - the most recent year for which figures are available - an increase of 18% compared with 2002.
However, the appeal of a thin client system architecture does not depend merely on it being cheaper to purchase than a PC-based equivalent. The main attraction for IT directors is the opportunity to remove valuable software and data assets from the desktop and relocate them in the datacentre, where they are not only more secure but also easier and cheaper to manage and maintain.
'Manageability is one of the key benefits of a thin client, or network-centric architecture approach. Thin client computing offers centralised management, enabling rapid deployment of new applications, easier and faster support for end-users and greater control over the use of systems,' says David Angwin, senior regional marketing manager for EMEA at Wyse Technology.
Companies that have taken the plunge and moved their PC estate to a thin client environment, he says, enjoy a 40% to 67% reduction in total cost of ownership.
Added to that are the benefits of greater security and reliability. 'You have got safer data and greater business continuity because all data resides on the server. And you are likely to see fewer breakdowns, greater data integrity and better uptime,' says Angwin.
Plenty of companies are taking advantage of this kind of architecture, he says: in healthcare, where small size and remote management are critical; in retail, to connect to local peripherals such as cash drawers and credit card readers; in call centres; and in manufacturing plants where dusty environments can lead to problems with fan-equipped PCs.
Migrating to a thin client environment also offers an opportunity for organisations to consolidate their IT infrastructures, says Lisa Hammond, chief executive at IT consulting company Centrix. One client, she says, needed to consolidate 38 buildings into a new London-based HQ and, at the same time, provide flexible working facilities for its staff. But the existing complexity of the technology architecture was a barrier: 2,500 applications and 670 servers.
Centrix was able to rationalise the number of 'necessary' applications to less than 200 and moved them to a central datacentre from where they are now accessed through thin client devices. The overall consolidation programme was shortened by more than 12 months using that approach, says Hammond, and saved 'millions of pounds'.
'The centralisation of the majority of existing applications to provide thin client services is a highly effective way to substantially reduce the cost of a desktop migration. The largest saving we have seen from that kind of project is £39m over three years,' she adds.
Ian Davie, business development manager at IT systems integration company Morse, agrees that thin clients are helping companies to rationalise their IT infrastructures. 'Thin client computing has helped many of our clients solve the problem of how to deploy and make available applications to a global workforce, including remote workers.
'There are huge benefits in administration for these businesses: imagine having to make an update to an application that resides on 500 desktops. Instead, they now only have to update it once on the server with the thin client model.'
Despite such claims, there are, however, two substantial barriers to the uptake of thin clients. First is the reluctance of users to give up their PCs. 'Personal' computers are seen as just that: a symbol of status within an organisation that offers the individual a degree of flexibility and freedom that they have come to expect as a right rather than a privilege.
But new approaches to thin client computing promise to tackle this issue - in particular, the emergence of the blade PC. This device offers the same opportunity to re-house desktop applications and data in the datacentre, but goes one step further by implementing entire PCs as blades housed in a server rack.
This has distinct advantages over traditional thin client approaches. By implementing a PC as a remote physical device in its own right, as opposed to a logical image hosted on a server, the blade PC retains the individuality that users demand. Each PC blade, for instance, can be configured to support the same physical characteristics of an individual PC, exactly emulating a user's required configuration.
The second barrier to the uptake of thin client computing is that IT directors are cautious about undermining their investments in existing 'fat' infrastructure. 'They recognise the benefits of centralised management, application deployment and control coupled with reduced support costs, but they are often put off by the technology's inability to address the migration of heavily relied upon legacy or heavily graphical applications to work effectively in a thin-client environment,' says Andy Irving, global sales manager at ThinTop Technologies.
There are ways around this, he says. ThinTop's software, for example, enables the IT department to lock down PCs to stop users changing settings and installing or launching unauthorised applications at the same time as providing them with a business-focused desktop, which gives them the features and functions they need to perform their prescribed roles. This turns the existing infrastructure into a server-based computing environment in which PCs effectively become thin client devices.
It is hardly surprising then that thin-client sales are, in Gartner's parlance, 'soaring'. It might be hasty to forecast the death of the traditional PC - as Ellison and McNealy did in 1997 - but alternative desktop system sales are currently surging ahead of PC growth.
In volume terms, thin clients still have a long way to go to catch up, but it is not unfeasible that they will do so. Gartner analysts are already predicting that, as early as 2008, the 'monstrous' PC that currently creates such nightmares for the IT department will be a standard feature on fewer than 50% of corporate desktops.
What is a thin client?
In essence, a thin client is a desktop device connected over the corporate network to a central server. The desktop device looks like a PC, but is actually much simpler: all application processing and storage is done on the server and the thin client is simply a device for input, output and display, which transmits keystrokes and mouse clicks to the server and displays on the end-user's monitor what the server is doing.
This requires the server to run specialist software such as Citrix Metaframe or Microsoft Terminal Server. These create virtual PCs within the server, complete with operating system, registries, IP addresses and other features required by standard PC applications.
There are many benefits to the thin client approach. A thin client does not require a hard drive, a floppy drive, or the latest CPU: it only has to drive the display and transfer input/output bit streams to the server. The thin client uses less power than a PC, and because it has no moving parts, less memory, and a CPU that generates less heat, it does not require a fan.
As a result, thin client devices are considerably less costly to buy than desktop PCs. The average selling price for thin clients, say Gartner analysts, dropped from £350 in 1999 to £200 in 2003.
According to Gartner, Wyse Technology was the number one supplier in the worldwide thin-client market in 2003 (the most recent year for which figures are available) with a 42% market share.
Neoware Systems was in second place with a 17% market share and the third-place supplier was Hewlett-Packard with 11%. Together, Wyse, Neoware and HP accounted for 70% of the worldwide market in 2003.
Are thin clients right for you?
Gartner analyst Mark Margevicius says IT directors should consider migrating to a thin-client architecture if their organisations:
- Demand high security
- Have limited floor space
- Have structured-task workers (for example, in a call centre)
- Plan to re-purpose PCs for new functionality
- Are interested in providing applications as a service
- Have little or no client manageability
- Have predictable client application requirements
- Deploy applications that do not consume significant client resources
- Are looking for ways to reduce the total cost of ownership of the client software architecture.