Desktop apps: Taming the desktop monster

It is ironic that computers, which have shown so much power in improving worker productivity, should be so inherently complex to manage that they are productive and counter-productive at the same time.

This showed up as an often painful truth for IT managers in the mid 1990s as the implications of the client/server revolution became fully clear.

Those changes put more powerful, capable and easy-to-use applications in users’ hands than ever before, but also introduced the hairy logistics of tracking a slew of application versions, patches, upgrades, and the inevitable problems due to user misconfiguration. This was all unprecedented for companies like dairy producer Parmalat, which in 1995 (when it was still trading as Pauls Limited) joined the Windows 95 rush as part of a shift from a VAX VMS environment to SAP R/3, with the SAP client running on Windows 95 against HP/UX servers.

“It gave power to the end user,” says Guy Stokker, technical manager with Parmalat. “Rather than having all the power centrally, it was distributed out and various departments could justify it. The great thing before PCs was that, in the VMS environment, we had total control over how terminals were used. But the introduction of PCs, and the ability to network them, introduced a plethora of new issues in hardware and software control and how end users used their PCs. Where desktop applications became fatter and fatter, clients became more difficult to deploy.”

Discarding the innocuous green screens of yesteryear forced Pauls to remain disciplined in its control of user desktops, which were locked down from the beginning, but nonetheless introduced a considerable management cost just keeping track of 700 unique employee desktops. It also faced the expense of upgrading its desktop PC hardware, which had quickly grown obsolete thanks to the whys and wherefores of Moore’s Law.

Its last major PC upgrade happened in 1998, when Parmalat introduced newer systems to handle new versions of its software applications.

Two years later, those desktops were unable to run the new SAP 4.6 client software, or to run Windows 4.0 or Windows 2000 Professional. Facing the high cost of upgrading those desktops yet again, the company decided to get off the upgrade cycle, instead embracing thin-client technology from Citrix that let it provide applications to users — and consolidate its dispersed storage, e-mail and file and print servers — while removing the complexity of managing individual operating systems.

Following that philosophy, Parmalat recently upgraded its servers to Windows Server 2003, which provided even better terminal support and allowed the company to consolidate its future IT strategy around the thin-client approach. It’s a return to the days of the green screen while allowing users to retain access to the sophisticated applications they need. Nearly 90 per cent of the company’s desktops — including many 1998-era machines that would keel over at the very thought of running SAP or Windows XP — are humming along nicely as dedicated thin clients.

“We’ve done a total turnaround,” Stokker says, “and we have total control again. We’ve been able to deploy many different fat-client applications, but don’t have this issue of desktop fleets to manage. The desktop has become a commodity item that is just a window to the application.”

Although it’s not the only company providing thin-client software, Citrix struck an early chord that helped companies reel in the cost of their desktop applications while retaining the features they needed. Better still, logical separation of the application from the desktop PC allows the application to be delivered to all sorts of terminals — whether desktops at home or smart mobile phones in the field.

This flexibility was never available in the days of green screens, which required a well-controlled computing environment to function properly. It’s also the result of years spent trying to improve the usability of desktop applications — as opposed to the 1980s and early 1990s, when desktop applications were focused solidly on adding features and solving technical problems.

MS-DOS, for example, provided a standard and usable command line interface to complement an emerging application space that really took off with the advent of Lotus 1-2-3 and WordPerfect. Successive updates to DOS introduced better resource control, while proprietary windowing systems like DesqView introduced the concept of multitasking and MacOS introduced the graphical user interface. IBM’s OS/2 enjoyed technical dominance for a brief period in the early 1990s, offering stability that was unmatched by then-nascent Windows.

These days, Windows is far and away synonymous with the desktop environment; OS/2 desktops are all but gone, MacOS has around 5 per cent of the desktop market, and Linux — despite all the hype it has attracted — has even less.

Although this homogeneity has provided a convenient target for application developers, it has also limited the options available to corporate IT consumers. Citrix MetaFrame — or Microsoft Terminal Services-based thin clients — and the increasingly common practice of delivering full-featured applications via a standard Web interface — are the best way for companies to escape the inefficiencies and expense of the oft-maligned fat client.

Although it runs contrary to the philosophical ideal of competition in desktop applications, this option nonetheless reflects the growing feeling that it is applications — and not the idiosyncrasies of desktop and notebook PCs — that should properly drive investment in IT. This presents serious problems for vendors of PCs, but promises continuing innovation in application development as system deployment becomes inherently more flexible and less error-prone.

In theory, this shift should allow for diversity in client-side desktops — which only need to be able to run a thin-client application or Web browser to work — and focus the challenges of application hosting soundly on the server side. Linux, Windows and Sun Solaris are all strong in this space, providing the much-needed competition that has been lacking in the desktop world.

While IT productivity spent 20 years as hostage to the technological expertise of Microsoft, a return to the early days of server-centric computing is finally starting to set the corporate world free.

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