Guest column: Reporter's notebook: Citrix iForum

The focus at Citrix iForum here this week is definitely on thin clients (not surprising, since Citrix bet its business long ago on the thin client). More interestingly, the centre of this focus is application service providers (ASP) and what they can do.

The ASP concept is certainly not new -- companies like EDS were doing a species of it years ago -- but it's a radical switch for today's LAN-centric corporations. And for those of us who've grown up first with the personal computer and then with the networked personal computer, it amounts to blasphemy. Some outsourced ASP is managing my formerly local applications and my formerly local (or at least server-based local) data? Eeeek!

Intellectually, I understand the economies of it: lower (much lower) support costs, less strain on overextended IT resources, the ability to let employees do their jobs instead of playing amateur help desk. But emotionally, it's a stretch.

The psychological issue may be one of the more difficult to overcome. Citrix has responded by giving the press at this conference a real taste of ASP action. We've all been given Compaq Aeros (a Jupiter-class Windows CE machine that looks like a laptop) and entrance to FutureLink's ASP servers back in Calgary, Ontario. We're running Citrix thin clients and a leased set of apps that include the Microsoft Office 97 suite.

To complete the details, we're connecting via local 2Mbit/sec to 3Mbps. BreezeWay wireless networking (a PC Card with its extremely fragile-looking antennae and wireless hubs placed throughout the hotel) and a pair of T1 lines going back to Canada. They're connecting to four Compaq 6400 Quad-Xeon servers, doing load-balanced application serving and Internet access for around 64 journalists.

How does it work? Pretty seamlessly. I was up and running five minutes after receiving my password. There's a slight, almost indistinguishable performance lag in using applications. My internet access appears to be running at about the speed of an ISDN connection, a bit slower than the office, but certainly acceptable.

I'm typing this in a remote Word application. In a minute I'll send this column via Outlook Express and my personal e-mail system.

About the only real problem I've found so far is the power drain. The BreezeWay card remains constantly connected, which takes me down to only two to three hours' use before I need to plug in and recharge.

I'm a bit uncomfortable about the fact that a vendor I'm writing about is also maintaining my words on his server, and I'm wondering what happens if I lose this connection and can't get it back. But this is certainly one of the most convenient ways to file stories I've ever encountered. Almost painless, in fact.

Right now the ASP market is centred not on large corporations but on small to medium businesses. Skilled application managers are in such short supply that this makes sense. A 50-person business might have trouble justifying the expense of, say, an Oracle database administrator or a PeopleSoft artisan. Renting those apps may be the only way to get them, in that case.

But ASPs will almost surely migrate up to all but the largest corporations over the next five years. It's inevitable; you want to put your IT resources where they'll make money for your company, not on upgrading 5000 desktops every time Microsoft hiccups.

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