Neither thin nor fat, the smart client model could offer users the best of both worlds

Microsoft is 'betting big' on hybrid approach to application management

Microsoft is 'betting big' on hybrid approach to application management

There is a quiet revolution happening in IT departments. Almost a decade ago, many of them started building their IT infrastructure on a thin client model. Since then, they have not seriously revisited the decision or simply will not hear a bad word said about thin clients. However, others are starting to consider alternatives and reaping the benefits as a result.

Dell, for instance, benefited from a 45% decrease in staff training costs after deploying its Integrated Dell Desktop.

The arrival of the browser and web-based applications in the 1990s was a godsend to many IT managers. It sought to overcome the limitations of the traditional client-server model. Although client-server applications were an improvement on dumb terminals, they brought deployment and management problems of their own.

Large-scale roll-outs of multiple applications to varied hardware configurations could be very complex and IT managers jumped at a solution which eased this administrative and technical burden.

Browser standardisation
The browser offered a standardised desktop client with a consistent user interface. As long as the browser understood the relevant standards, it did not even matter which browser was used. Although remote access present ed some security concerns, it also brought huge benefits. IT managers could roll out new versions of applications to all their users simultaneously by updating the version held on the server. 

However, web applications suffer from two serious limitations: they require a constant connection to the network in order to function properly, and their user interface is often poor and unresponsive, particularly in comparison to a good locally-installed application. HTML has turned out to be both a saving grace for administration and management and a limiting factor for functionality, usability and ultimately productivity.

A decade or so on from the arrival of browsers, IT managers no longer have to sacrifice user productivity and application functionality in order to ease administration or management overheads. Yet many do, either because they are not aware of the alternatives or because the words 'thin client' have become a sort of corporate mantra.

Feature amalgamation
Discussion of thin client technology has also become binary over the years. If it is not thin, it must be 'fat', with all the negative connotations that go with that word. The truth is that there is now something in between thin and fat  called a 'smart client'. Smart clients take the best from both models and create something new.

These applications make use of ever-increasing local processing power and storage across a range of devices, from desktop PCs to smartphones. Although they can use services available via the internet, they cache information locally in an intelligent way, which means they can remain functional when the connection to the server becomes degraded or ceases. This means productivity is not lost when the network goes down or the mobile device moves out of range.

Furthermore, smart clients adopt a deployment model that is closer to that of a web application, particularly if they are built around the Windows Forms technology supported by the .net Framework. These deployments are 'no-touch' and automatically upgrade if necessary. IT managers retain a fine degree of control over which resources users can access through deployed applications. 

Because these applications are no longer constrained by the limitations of HTML and can take advantage of the power of the desktop PC or mobile device, users see a leap in the functionality of the application and its ability to match their needs. In short, they can become more productive. 

To explain this further, contrast these two ways of accessing mail: Outlook Web Access for Exchange Server (OWA) and Outlook 2003 itself. OWA emulates Outlook within a browser and does a good job.  However, it cannot match the real thing for functionality or performance. Also, OWA can only function when connected to the web server, whereas Outlook can cope with offline, low-bandwidth and online situations, synchronising updates when the connection becomes viable again.

Whether browser- or client-based, any application that connects to the IT infrastructure from outside the firewall brings security concerns. Mobile devices can be stolen; wireless networks can be hacked; the homes of remote workers can be burgled. To guard against this, the .net Framework incorporates a sophisticated security framework and encryption facilities that can be used to ensure locally-cached data remains secure.

Forthcoming developments
This initiative is not a passing fad for Microsoft: it is 'betting big' on smart clients. Today, the company supports the concept in three ways: through Windows Forms, Microsoft Office System and the Windows Mobile Platform. It is also building deep support for smart clients into the forthcoming Visual Studio 2005 development tools suite, with technologies such as ClickOnce deployment.

Looking further ahead to Longhorn versions of Windows, the gap between a web and a client application will close further with the advanced graphical functionality found in a new presentation technology (code-named 'Avalon') and the advanced web-service technology (code-named 'Indigo'), coupled with very flexible server-based administration for client applications. Both Avalon and Indigo will also be supported by Windows XP and Windows Server 2003.

A decade on from the introduction of the browser, there is another application model to consider and another opportunity to manage costs, ROI and security while driving user productivity. Let's do away with the lazy stereotypes and constraints of thin clients and fat clients and get smart by taking the best from both worlds.

Mark Quirk is head of the technology, developer and platform group at Microsoft

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