SAN MATEO (04/24/2000) - The promise of server-based, thin-client computing is compelling for companies that want to reduce desktop costs and increase manageability. Citrix Systems Inc., co-architect of the original Microsoft Terminal Server, has delivered a solid server-based, thin-client solution with its MetaFrame for Unix 1.0.
This MetaFrame version allows Unix and Java applications to be run remotely from any client, including a Web browser, regardless of the available bandwidth or local limitations of the client hardware.
MetaFrame for Unix is more cost-efficient and less hardware-restrictive than comparable X-terminal emulators, and it delivers better performance benefits than comparable solutions such as SCO's Java-based Tarantella.
When stacked against Microsoft's new integrated support for Terminal Server in Windows 2000, Citrix delivers better breadth of support for networking protocols, including IPX and NetBEUI, more management features, and better client connectivity.
MetaFrame for Unix does not contain as many administrative features as its Windows sibling, MetaFrame for Windows. However, MetaFrame for Unix is still a good way for ASPs (application service providers) and midsize to large businesses to extend the reach of their server and application investments.
MetaFrame's capabilities stem from its Independent Computing Architecture (ICA) technology, which comprises Citrix's proprietary application server and client-side components as well as a secure networking and presentation-protocol transport.
Installing the server-side MetaFrame application server was straightforward and error-free, despite the command-line-only interface. This version of MetaFrame supports both SPARC and Intel flavors of Sun Solaris 2.6 and 2.7 (Solaris 7), and I was up and running in less than 15 minutes. Upon bringing the MetaFrame Server online, I was able to install the no-cost ICA clients on my client devices.
Citrix supports a broad mix of ICA clients, including client support for Windows, Mac, and Unix workstations; terminals; wireless devices; and network appliances.
The client installation set up the Citrix Program Neighborhood, an interface comparable to Windows' Network Neighborhood, from which I was able to quickly set up point-and-click connections to active servers and Unix applications available on my network.
MetaFrame also provides support for Web-enabled applications. After developers embed a simple Citrix Application Launching and Embedding (ALE) tag into an HTML page, users can click on a link to launch applications from within any standard Web browser. ALE clients are available as a Java plug-in for Netscape or as ActiveX controls for Internet Explorer.
The result was that the application looked and felt as though it was running locally on my desktop. Tests run against high-end desktops, as well as an old Windows 286 box using a 28.8Kbps dial-up connection, produced favorable results. End-users can access local resources such as printers, communication ports, and the system clipboard.
MetaFrame for Unix provides a number of features to ease administrative burdens and help manage servers and user sessions. Although the set of management services available is not as extensive as MetaFrame for Windows, Citrix officials said better centralized management between platforms is planned for a future release.
Administrators can display general statistics on servers, throttle access, display user sessions and resources, disconnect and reset sessions, and even remotely control an ICA session, helping to ease remote support and training requirements.
Although MetaFrame for Unix supports load balancing and can co-exist on the network with Windows-based versions, I was disappointed by its inability to cross-manage mixed-server farms.
Rather than force users to navigate a command-line Unix interface, MetaFrame simplifies application availability by allowing administrators to "publish" desktop shortcuts to applications. I found it easy to set up shortcuts, and the point-and-click launching of applications should decrease the learning curve for Windows users.
Through MetaFrame's shutdown mechanism, administrators can notify users when a server is about to be taken offline and, in the event of an accidental disconnect, MetaFrame maintains its state instead of dumping the active session. Upon logging in, users are alerted to the active session and given the opportunity to reconnect, minimizing the risk of data loss.
In total, I found this product to be highly effective considering it was the first version released for Unix. MetaFrame delivers a solid, scalable application server architecture and offers the broadest array of client connectivity options in the marketplace.
MetaFrame will help reduce costs through centralized application management, while ensuring the availability and reliability of enterprise resources to your distributed work force and business partners.
James R. Borck (email@example.com) appears frequently in InfoWorld and is Director of IS for Industrial Art & Science in Connecticut.
Thin client has fat advantage
Enterprise networking has become increasingly diversified. Your implementation may include integration of business partners, remote office support, or support for traveling employees. Providing access to applications reliably and cost-effectively can be a daunting task. And a complicated array of heterogeneous hardware, operating systems, networking protocols, and bandwidth requirements introduces costly integration obstacles.
Thin-client computing serves to reduce the management and maintenance costs of IT administration and, at the same time, enhance the quality and accessibility of applications to the end-user.
The basic principle behind thin-client computing architecture is to separate the application-processing layer from the user interface. On the server side, an application server handles the computational overhead and communicates to the client only the display information necessary for creating the interface, such as mouse positioning, window status, and text.
The requirements of the client device do not need to be on par with the applications processing prerequisites. The device need only be capable of displaying a user interface.
Thin-client technology extends the reach of application investments beyond the desktop to almost any type of device, including many non-Windows devices, wireless terminals, and information appliances, and allows applications to be run even in conditions of abject connectivity, because the amount of data transferred is dramatically reduced.
End-users can thus conduct business more efficiently thanks to cross-platform availability of mission-critical resources, such as Unix-based business-to-business applications or business documents on the network. From the end-user's perspective, all of the applications, regardless of platform, are accessible from a singular environment on the thin-client device.
With the burden of application processing pushed to a centralized server farm, thin-client processing extends the life cycle of existing infrastructure investments, reduces network traffic, and gives outdated systems access to state-of-the-art applications.
Centralized, server-side application management reduces the total cost of ownership. Application updates can be rolled out more quickly and efficiently from a central point, and administrators maintain tighter control of clients.
To date, one of the major deployment hurdles in thin-client technology has come from software vendors whose applications were not tuned for multiuser environments. However, as the market continues to mature, most have become conscious of the necessity for thin-client awareness.
On the server-side of the equation, great strides have been made with the addition of multiple schemes that support load balancing, fail over, and expanded clustered configurations. Major thin-client solutions now support browser-based access to applications, customized portals, and session shadowing, which allows help desk administrators to reduce customer service costs by monitoring and taking control of a user's session remotely.
There are major differences in architecture, capability, and cost among the leading players in this marketplace. For example, Microsoft Windows 2000 Terminal Server supports the Remote Desktop Protocol. Citrix supports Independent Computing Architecture. And Tarantella offers its Adaptive Internet Protocol. Choosing the best solution for your mixed-platform environment can be quite tricky.
But large and mid-size companies looking to improve application access in mixed-client and server-platform settings and reducing administrative overhead will find both the immediate ROI and long-term cost benefits worth the investment.
THE BOTTOM LINE: VERY GOOD
MetaFrame for Unix 1.0
Business Case: MetaFrame extends the life of existing infrastructure investments and eliminates the complex and costly accessibility issues that are inherent to supporting mixed-platform environments.
Technology Case: Servers install and set up easily, as does the client-side application. Easy "publishing" of applications makes for quick deployment.
Extensibility to the Web through embedded HTML links broadens availability.
+ Great performance
+ Easy installation
+ Availability of local resources
+ Pooled licensing
- No cross-server management of multiplatform installations- Lacks capability of pushing deployment links- No centralized client managementCost: $4,995 for 15 users; $200 per user for additional license packsPlatform(s): Solaris 2.6/2.7; Clients: Windows, Mac, Unix/Linux, DOS, Java wireless devices, network appliancesCitrix Systems, Inc., Fort Lauderdale, Florida; (800) 393-1888; www.citrix.com.