Why thin's back in - Part 2

Thin computing's renaissance may come from its newfound ability to blend different operating environments, says Ian Yates.

PREVIOUSLY: The draw of thin

Thin clients are the idea that never quite goes away, even though Windows desktops dominate.

The two ideas are, however, coming together in, off all places, Sun.

"We've acquired a company called Tarantella, and we've re-engineered the product to be called Sun Secure Global Desktop, which allows us to deploy any kind of back-end systems to any web-enabled browser," says the company's Laurie Wong. "So we can deploy X11, Microsoft RDP sessions, VT200 sessions, 3270 sessions, 5250 sessions. Any terminal type out there that exists can be deployed to a Java-enabled web browser, and the reason why we need Java-enablement there is we need to run a little applet for security and encryption purposes."

This multiple-personality trick is very popular in the IT departments of merger and acquisition targets. "For large organisations that live by acquisitions - and you can think of very many of them - not only do they acquire businesses, they acquire data centres, and within all these data centres, you have multiple kinds of application back-ends," says Wong. "Usually, totally incompatible. So what they do is they use Secure Global Desktop as a virtualisation layer, and deploy all these applications to a browser. We know a very large retail organisation that deploys Windows XP desktops to devices out there that can barely run Windows 98. They boot up a very small version of Linux and up pops the browser and then they deploy Secure Global Desktop."

VMware also provides back-end technology to enable thin connections, from real thin clients or from full-blown PCs and laptops, and its popularity is growing almost as fast as social networking. "The problem with the thin client approach before virtualisation was that there was some modification or compromise to the end user experience in some way or another," says Paul Harapin from VMware. "What you get with virtualisation is an uncompromised end user experience where for all intents and purposes it's exactly like having a desktop. You can change the screen, you can add your family photos, you can change the colours, do all of that, you just happen to have a thin client on the desk not a full desktop."

Despite the obvious appeal of thin client computing there hasn't yet been a sudden drop in sales in the desktop PC market. And, it's only the hardware which will be affected - you still need to buy a copy of the operating system from your favourite vendor for each virtual PC you're running on your servers. "I think the vast majority of desktops are ripe for a virtual desktop infrastructure," says Harapin. "There are static desktops with no special requirements that are easily virtualised but then you might have some other situations where you have a mobile workforce and that person is never in the office but still needs a virtual session."

"From a hardware side different people will approach it differently," says Harapin. "For example if you have an existing desktop that's running Windows XP, you might want to run Windows Vista, but the hardware itself may not be adequate to support Vista. You can run a virtual client and use your existing physical desktop but stream Vista down to that old piece of hardware until it's time to replace it with a thin client, but nothing changes on the user end. So it is horses for courses and depends on the end user's environment."

When you start virtualising what sort of grunt do you need? How much grunt do you need to provide twenty Windows XP clients? Does your server really need the horsepower of twenty 4GHz Pentium chips? "Once you've built the virtual infrastructure in your data centre, you've built it out as a capacity pool, a resource pool and then your applications or your virtual machines access that capacity as they need it," says Harapin. "During the day you might have for every 30 desktops the equivalent of a 2CPU server being used but come 6pm and everyone goes home that capacity is free. What you can do then is bring on some batch server workloads, run those batch workloads overnight and then at 7am bring the desktops back on ready to go."

One of the big promises of virtualisation is securing the important company data which hides on end user PCs. Often, the importance of that data to the running of the business is only discovered when a PC dies, usually before it was backed up. "Currently you rely on the end user backing up their data, whether you provide some over the network back up capability or you're hoping that they're doing something locally, but, you know, in the vast majority of cases it just doesn't happen and they lose it," says Harapin. "By having a virtual desktop infrastructure all of that data is stored centrally, it's all backed up in the same way you back up your normal server-based data."

Before we break out the champagne to celebrate the demise of the desktop PC, there's another device out there which requires endless support, and hides important corporate data - the notebook PC. However, now even that problem child is able to be tamed and brought into the thin computing playground, thanks to the initiatives of companies such as Neoware, which has released a thin client laptop. One very keen user of this technology is the Australian Red Cross, where data security isn't just about keeping close track on your finances - lives could be at risk from the data on stolen notebooks.

"Their CEO told me he'd been waiting for this to happen for a couple of years," says Neoware's Michael McGrath. "He piloted the device, put in his Telstra 3G card and used it on the train, on the Manly ferry, loved the concept and they are now rolling them out fairly broadly within the Red Cross. Their people go into a war zone or some natural disaster and the capability to go in there with a thin client device and not be too concerned if that device gets stolen or lost if they have to leave the war zone quickly, or someone knocks off the device, is really important to them. No longer is there concern about sensitive data or information being put in the wrong hands. They could have information that identifies people that are being targeted."

NEXT: Thin in action at Jetstar

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