|The future is thin
Things are looking even better for NT users
Applications needing regular updates
Thin is in
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."
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
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.
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.
|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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