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Special reports - Let’s Get Small: Thin clients and low budgets - Sept 1999
Jane Dudman investigates the thin client market.

The thin client market is changing and a growing number of companies with extensive Windows NT use are showing interest in this technology. Thin client computing has evolved from the days of mainframe and host-centric systems. While the big PC networking boom of the late 1980s and early 90s was in full flight, many organisations were still quietly running existing networks, in which information was fed from a central system down to those users who needed it. Dumb terminals have lasted much longer than anyone might have imagined, given the hype that surround client/server systems.

The future is thin

Eventually, questions started to be asked about the cost of running all those distributed PCs in their three-tier networks, while on the other side, it was clear that character-based dumb terminals were hardly the way of the future, even if they had worked well and cost-effectively in the past. The result was the emergence of a new market for thin clients, which would be graphics-based and use the browser technology of the Internet. This brought the old dumb terminal idea bang up-to-date, but which would continue to act as a relatively limited applications end-station for host-server-based computing, thus keeping down the costs of networking and management.

This model of thin client computing has been driven by two main camps: on the one hand, there has been a band of companies, including IBM, Sun, Oracle and others, that initially saw thin client computing as a way to cock a snook at the growing might of Microsoft's PC-based empire. They came up with the concept of the Network Computer, based on Sun's Java program. In the other thin client camp was a then little-known company called Citrix which approached thin client computing from a different angle. It had no particular political agenda with Microsoft and believed thin clients could work well as workstations within a PC-based network, using Windows NT as their operating system.

This was a view taken on board by hardware manufacturers like terminal producer Wyse. "We believe people need thinner clients and to get the true benefits of those clients, they need to be server-centric, with the processing done centrally," explains David Mills, European marketing director at Wyse Technology. "That is how Wyse has always worked and so when Citrix brought out its first terminal in 1995, it was the first thin client that fitted Wyse's view of the world."

Wyse move

Since the launch of that terminal, the Winterm 2000, Wyse and Citrix have worked closely together. "The press and the media argued over the NC versus the PC for the next two years, but we at Wyse stood outside that argument," says Mills. This put Wyse in good stead when, a year ago, Microsoft launched Windows NT 4.0 Terminal Server Edition, which helped make the whole notion of thin clients mainstream, by enabling Windows applications to run on servers and be accessed by Windows or non-Windows thin client devices. "In the early days of thin clients, Microsoft's message was very client/server, but now I think the company's stance is to deliver Windows on a range of platforms," comments Mills. "Microsoft has realised that by adopting an agnostic approach to architecture, it can expand the market without having to cannibalise its PC sales."

Dominic Cornford, associate consultant at the NCC, whose recent user survey highlighted big potential growth in the thin client market (see page X for more details on the survey), says there are two main financial arguments in favour of thin client technology. Firstly, it can extend the life of PCs that might otherwise have to be upgraded, because they can now be used as thin client devices; and secondly, companies installing new systems like the lower overall cost of ownership.

But the path towards the partnership of thin client devices and Windows NT has not been entirely smooth. Initially, there were difficulties in making applications that had been written for a client/server world run as multi-user NT applications, says Mills, at Wyse. "People buy applications, not hardware, and one of the hold-ups for our market has been trying to make NT multi-user," he comments. Another hold-up was Microsoft's position on NT licensing. The company said customers needed to buy a licence for every Windows Terminal Server, whether they ran NT or not. That pushed up the cost of thin client systems. But by January, Microsoft had changed policy. Now, non-Windows clients can buy a Terminal Server Client Access Licence instead of an NT workstation licence - saving about 20% on each thin client.

Things are looking even better for NT users

And with Windows 2000 on the horizon, things are looking even better for Windows NT users wanting to use thin client devices, says Mills. "NT 4.0 Terminal Server Edition was a statement of intent rather than a product Microsoft wanted to go to town on," he comments. "But any application that has to be certified to run under Windows 2000 has to run under Terminal Server, so under Windows 2000, applications can run either on client/server PCs or on thin clients, so some of the snags will disappear."

Citrix's key product in the early days of its development of thin client systems was Winframe server software. Now, its key product is the Metaframe server software, which runs under Windows NT Terminal Server. With the ironing out of the problems over NT licensing and the launch of Metaframe V1.8, Citrix is confident over future sales.

So far, Citrix has sold more than 100,000 Winframe and Metaframe licences and claims that its server software supports more than eight million thin client devices. Almost half the existing Metaframe customer base has come from Winframe customers that have upgraded, while the other half has come from new customers, installing thin client systems for the first time. Chris Hammans, Citrix's director of enterprise accounts for Citrix in northern Europe, says Winframe was a "tactical solution" for Citrix customers. "It was sold as a remote access system to prove applications to parts of the organisation that needed them," he comments. "With the development of Metaframe, the focus is on manageability. We've moved away from the tactical, remote office solution to being a departmental and enterprise solution."

As part of this move, Citrix has developed a number of services around Metaframe to enhance the system's manageability, including its Resource Management Services and Installation Management Services toolkits. It is perhaps not surprising, given Microsoft's dominance in the PC market, that the software giant, while emphasising its interest in a whole range of thin client uses, continues to see one of the more important aspects of the thin client market as its ability to pipe specific applications down to fat clients.

Applications needing regular updates

Frances Fawcett, Windows product marketing manager at Microsoft UK, says a growing number of companies want to use the thin client approach alongside their existing PC network. She says that it is particularly useful for applications that need updating regularly, such as an insurance quotation system, or a sales system. Rather than replace existing PCs with thin client devices, says Fawcett, companies are providing users with high-powered NT desktop machines and can run the usual range of personal productivity office applications. Alongside that, business applications are not run on the individual PC, but downloaded from a central server. "The user doesn't know anything about it. They just double click on the icon," comments Fawcett. "It means the system can be controlled and updated regularly."

This is an area in which Citrix, who dominates the thin client market, may face competition in the future. NCD, in particular, claims that its ThinPath software provides a lower cost alternative to Citrix and that its thin client management software for Windows Terminal Server could be a challenge to Citrix.

Companies may use thin client technology to pump specific, centrally-controlled applications down to fat clients, but analysts are also predicting a boom in the use of thin client devices. In April, the Aberdeen Group launched a report predicting that multi-user NT-based computing will become a major technology base for businesses looking to improve the use of their corporate IT resources. The report forecasts that by 2003, a full third of all new desktop devices being bought will be thin client units. Aberdeen acknowledges that PCs will remain the "client-of-choice" for most organisations for at least the next two years, but after that there will be a strong take-up of thin-client devices, including Java-based clients, Network Computers, handheld devices and thin, browser-enabled platforms.

Nimisha Patel, author of the report, says major technology improvements since 1997 have made the NT operating environment suitable for deployment in multi-user computing mode. "The recent improvements in server power and Windows terminal handling finally make multi-user computing a viable enterprise-computing solution," comments Patel. Implementing thin client strategies will help companies save money, says Aberdeen. Most of the saving will comes from cutting systems administration costs because of the more straightforward applications management and control provided by thin client systems (see box). There are also some savings in hardware costs.

Thin is in

The interest in thin client computing is now attracting attention from a whole range of vendors. At the Networks 99 show in June, Centraliis, for instance, demonstrated a system in which Novell's Directory Services and Zenworks network management software was integrated with Windows Terminal Server and Citrix Metaframe. Centraliis says the advantage of its system is that companies can gain the benefits of thin client technology without having to migrate wholesale from Novell NetWare to NT. Bandwidth management is also a key issue, since there's little point in setting up thin client systems over networks that are clogged up with fat client traffic. Bandwidth management specialist Packeteer has spotted this and developed its PacketShaper product, which provides application control mechanisms developed specifically for thin-client computing, so that thin client systems based on Citrix's Winframe and Metaframe software don't end up getting slowed down over wide area networks.

Hardware developments

There are also developments on the hardware front. In June, Data General announced its WiiN-PAD device, which it claims is the first wireless thin client. Wiin-PAD is based on Citrix's thin client architecture and runs Windows CE. It is aimed at mobile healthcare professionals and DG claims it will run any Windows application, providing access to centrally-managed Windows systems, such as medical files. Ali Shirnia, UK marketing director for Data General, believes cost is not necessarily the foremost consideration for organisations taking on thin client systems. "From a customer perspective, some of the most important aspects of server-based IT on NT are operational issues, not just cost issues," he comments. "Companies are moving to server-based computing to be able to do things like capacity planning and lights-out operations. All this makes implementing applications a lot easier."

It also happens to sound quite a lot like the old days of mainframe-based computing. That is no coincidence. Many IT managers would be a lot happier if they could bring back to today's networks some of the control and manageability they used to have in the old days.

Cost comparisons

Typical install times:

Networked PC
: Unpack and load operating system, 30 minutes; Load applications, 30 minutes; configure networks, 15 minutes. Total: 1 hour, 15 minutes. Total staff days to install 100 PCs: 15.

Thin client
: Unpack and connect, 5 minutes; configure, 5 minutes; configure server, 5 minutes. Total: 15 minutes. Total staff days to install 100 thin clients: 3 days.

Service and Maintenance

Networked PC
: Three-year warranty; Typical meantime between failures,
25,000 hours; Unit cost 120; 100 unit cost, 12,000.

Thin client
: Three-year warranty: Typical meantime between failures,
170,000 hours; Unit cost 61; 100 unit cost, 6,100.

Saving on maintenance: 5,900 a year on 100 units

Source: MiTech and Wyse

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