Why thin's back in - Part 1

Thin clients are the idea that never quite went away. In the first part of a three-day story, Ian Yates explains why.

The people who ran the data centres back when PCs were invented were quite happy with 'dumb' terminals. It was the users who insisted on pretty graphics and full colour screens. Oh, alright, the PC did things better than dumb terminals and allowed developers to produce applications that are much easier to use. So collectively we agreed that the PC was a good thing and we wrote emulation software so we could retire all our dumb terminals. But the idea of reducing the complexity of the PCs on workers' desks is as old as the PC itself.

Now the folk who run the data centres have finally discovered a practical way to reduce the complexity of desktop PCs. It's called virtualisation and they love it. Even if there are still real PCs out there, with everything virtualised, the support headache rapidly recedes. But now that virtualisation works, why do we need PCs out there at all? Dust off the IT magazines from the early '90s and you'll find lots of stories about 'network computers' and 'thin clients'. Well, as always, everything old is new again and thin is back in fashion.

There have been a few champions of thin client computing over the decades, most notably Citrix, whose code was so good even Microsoft licensed it, and Wyse Technology, which found itself staring at oblivion as the last maker of dumb terminals, and reinvented itself as a thin client company. These two stalwarts, along with another early pioneer of thin computing, Sun Microsystems, have seen increased demand for their wares as the world of virtual overtakes the physical. When PCs are due for replacement, chances are increasingly likely that the new model won't have any moving parts.

Phil Osborne has been with Citrix in Australia for the last ten years, and he's watched the market for thinness growing. "So I really came in at the start of the whole concept of thin client computing. I think even the word thin client, which I guess we're stuck with now because it's the start of the whole revolution, is a little bit of a misnomer because today thin client really refers to the thinness of the connection between the end point and the data centre," says Osborne. "So that's what thin client today really means as opposed to the actual hardware that many people use."

Indeed, you don't have to have thin client hardware to run a thin client model. "In fact many people are using fat PCs in what we call a hybrid mode," says Osborne. "I have a laptop because I travel a lot and I use that both as a fully functional fat PC but I also use it in conjunction with, if you like, a thinness of connection for some of our back-office applications. I often say to people when they're trying to get their head around this, I say think of two things, where do you want the applications to run and where do you want the data to reside?

"Now, in the purest Citrix model you'd say they absolutely want the data to stay in the data centre. So that provides a very thin concept for the user. But in some instances you may in fact want the application to run on the fat client but you still want the data to stay in the data centre for security purposes. So you can get different combinations now and different degrees of thinness depending on what you're trying to do and where you are. For example, if I'm doing a lot of video, I'm looking at a lot of videos or there's a lot of animation then I probably would want that to use the CPU power of the local machine as opposed to taking up server resources."

Wyse Technology's Ward Nash is very aware of the new-found enthusiasm for thin computing - it's directly reflected in his sales figures. "From a hardware standpoint thin clients have been around since 1995 but I guess the difference nowadays is the applications we're able to provide and the way that you're able to do server-based computing has improved dramatically," says Nash. "On the Citrix side, with the advent of VMware, desktop virtualisation and terminal services has changed quite a bit over the years. So what we're able to provide down at the user level on the same thin client hardware is much different than it was even two or three years ago."

So even though we're seeing a revolution from newer players like VMware who were so successful they managed to get themselves acquired by EMC, the traditional players such as Citrix and Microsoft have both lifted their game and you now get a better result on your existing hardware. "Virtualisation has really woken everybody up quite a bit so we've just kind of sat back and been waiting for things to move to the server room," says Nash. "If you're doing server-based applications then that's perfect for us, so the more people out there talking about that, the more deployments that are going that way, it only helps us proliferate more thin clients."

"For mobile users that's where Citrix made its game in the beginning," says Nash. "Remote users and mobile users being able to log in from their hotel room and get desktop-like performance over a dial up connection even in the hotel room. We don't play much in the mobile space yet although keep an eye out for something maybe in the future. From a task-based worker standpoint we've always had that possibility but now virtualisation has dramatically increased the things that users can do on a thin client. As an example, in a server based computing environment you probably wouldn't want anybody installing iTunes, but in a virtual PC it's not quite as big a concern."

Although Citrix provides the back-end smarts and Wyse provides the clients to make thin computing work, they don't have the game all to themselves. Sun Microsystems is still active in this market. "Certainly, there has been quite an amazing amount of growth for us in the thin client market space," says Laurie Wong from Sun Microsystems. "The virtualisation techniques are allowing more of our vision to actually play out, which is allowing the data centre to actually run all of the clients out there, and in data centres you have good hygiene, you have back-up, you have all the necessary things to actually maintain and store your data securely."

And of course, in the data centre we find IT professionals who know what they're doing, rather than hapless end-users who don't know what they've lost until it's gone, which is increasingly important in the financial sector, and is now being enforced by legislation. "If you look at the US where they have the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, and a number of Australian initiatives as well, that require you to actually know and to have full awareness of where the data is kept, who's authorised to use that data, and who's authorised the authoriser to monitor how you use the data, if you know what I mean - it's quite onerous," says Wong. "So it makes it easier to have centralised control of the data."

NEXT: Is it because thin computing can blend operating environments?

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