Thin clients — niche but nice

The debate whether thin clients have as much, or more, to offer enterprises as the ubiquitous PC and notebook has been going since the advent of network computing. Thin clients are yet to be adopted on a large scale by the PC and notebook hungry masses. Rodney Gedda reports on the moves to thin client computing and profiles companies which have implemented it

A thin client is a lighter style of client device through which users can access applications in much the same way as a PC or notebook. The main difference between thin clients and desktops (also known as “fat” clients) is that applications are run from a central server making some components, such as local disks, redundant.

Paul Wilcox, Oceania director for thin client vendor Wyse Technology, said although capital costs between thin clients and desktops are similar, there are real savings in on-going expenses with thin clients.

“What drives users to thin clients are the maintenance costs of PCs and notebooks,” Wilcox said. “Thin clients allow absolute control over users who are unable to change the system; this also translates to cost savings.”

Therein lies the most frequent argument used when comparing the two forms of desktop device; the total cost of ownership of thin clients is lower because less maintenance and support is required.

“The cost of maintaining a large server is minimal compared to desktops,” Wilcox said. “Also, the power usage of a thin client is typically 10 per cent of that for a PC which can result in tens of thousands of dollars off an organisation’s electricity bill annually depending on the scale of the implementation.”

Wyse Technology recently introduced the Winterm tablet thin client, which now has optional 802.11b wireless networking.

“There is practically no limit to the number of applications, on Windows or Unix servers, which can be accessed with thin clients,” Wilcox said. “In a TC environment, the only latency is the I/O of the server, hence, working remotely is fast and secure. It is also possible to run TCs off clustered servers to ensure high availability.”

Market competition

Despite manufacturers’ claims of a lower TCO, thin clients remain a tiny part of the personal computing market. As part of its research into the PC, notebook and Intel server market, IDC tracks sales of thin clients annually. In 2002 IDC reported total sales of thin clients in Australia to be about 31,000 units — up from 18,500 in 2001 — representing just under 1.5 per cent of PC and notebook sales for the year.

Sales of thin clients are expected to increase steadily until 2006, according to IDC.

Darian Bird, PC market analyst, IDC Australia and New Zealand, said there are a number of reasons why thin clients are yet to grasp a significant portion of the PC market.

“There is a perception within the business sector that PCs are easier to manage because they are a well-known technology,” Bird said. “As such, there is a lack of understanding of the thin client model.”

Bird also cited performance issues compared with PCs and notebooks, and the difficulty of mobile use, as reasons for the low presence of thin clients, particularly among small businesses.

According to Simon Johnson, director of marketing, Dell Australia and New Zealand, the thin client market is good but too small to attract large investment by the company.

“Thin clients tend to be in pockets of the enterprise such as in manufacturing and point-of-sale systems since they are not a complete PC replacement,” Johnson said.

PCs are flexible enough to compete against the TCO argument on management and support that thin client vendors use, he said.

“Corporate desktops can be small in size and stripped in terms of devices, yet none of the PC features are given up. It is also possible to run applications from a server to a regular PC, not just thin clients,” he said. “TCO is about life cycle in addition to purchase price and running costs. Organisations are also interested in exit price as the residual value of a PC is more than a thin client.”

Johnson added that most organisations have the technology in place that allows thin client-like management of PCs across the enterprise. “A PC can be as manageable as a thin client,” he said.

Thin client success

With their niche status in the enterprise set to continue, thin client technology has made a notable difference to two companies’ infrastructure.

When Susan McAnna, network administrator for Hurstville City Council, south of Sydney, was looking to upgrade the central library’s dumb terminals used for public access, her department went to tender to consider various solutions.

“We evaluated four or five other solutions and considered price, size and floppy disk access,” McAnna said. “The thin solution went ahead because of price and we now have the little ‘modem’ Winterm devices with standard 15in CRT monitors running off a Citrix on Windows 2000 back end.”

In accordance with the TCO argument for thin clients, McAnna said cost savings have been realised in reduced PC support time.

“In the past we used Ghost for deploying system images to PCs. That, combined with general administration issues, would take some 35 hours a month,” McAnna said. “Now we can get on with our own work. There are rarely any problems; however, if something does go wrong the general library staff can simply switch the TC on and off again which usually fixes it. It takes about 15 seconds from power-on to being able to use applications.”

Thin client solutions also scale beyond the workgroup, which is the case at Owens Container Services, a storage and container company operating in 15 sites across Australia and New Zealand.

“We now have between 400 and 500 thin clients throughout the Owens group, including the administrative staff,” Ross Pavey, the company’s IT manager, said. “Our main reason for migrating to thin clients was the cost of having to maintain NetWare, the complexity of our PC LAN environment, and other expenses such as bandwidth and travel. Other advantages include central control of users and applications.”

Pavey said the performance of the thin clients is more than acceptable as the average session involves 4K of data per user.

“Bandwidth was a big problem, as was the cost of data traffic,” he said. “The business units yet to switch to thin clients have 50 per cent greater data costs.”

Pavey said there were no obvious disadvantages with thin clients other than a few applications that won’t run off the server. “The Windows NT Terminal Server can give problems; however, we will be considering Linux as alternative server platform.”

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