Thin Clients Are Making a Comeback (Again)

Somewhere in the latter days of the dot.com era, vendors began once again
trumpeting the merits of thin clients: no need for hardware refreshes every
three years, they are easier to deploy, etc. and, of course, thin clients
have more fun.

But CIOs have been slow to adopt, perhaps leery due to the less than
stellar results from those who rushed to the front of the line. But, despite
the occasional failures, thin client architectures are steadily gaining
ground. In particular, they have done well in point of sale (POS)
deployments. And of course, there are still an awful lot of dumb “green
screen” mainframe terminals in use.

“In the 90’s, most applications were not designed to be thin
client-enabled, so they were slow, clunky, and difficult to use, damaging the
user experience, and damaging customer service,” said Andi Mann, an analyst
with Enterprise Management Associates. “Applications now are being designed
specifically for Web-based and remote computing, so they are faster, easier,
and more feature-rich, even on a thin client.”

He believes that new Web browsers (including AJAX and other Web 2.0
capabilities) make the thin-user experience faster and more interactive. A
software as a service (SaaS) model for delivery, too, has helped to drive use
cases for thin clients. Further, virtualization makes it even easier as the
data center now has much more sophisticated capabilities to deploy
feature-rich capabilities within a thin client environment.

“In general, the biggest benefits accrue to companies that have large
volume of in-house process workers doing repetitive activity in a limited
number of computing environments like call centers, data entry operators,
etc.,” said Mann. “They can operate a low-power application across a fixed
network with minimal processing and minimal variation.”

Thin clients, however, aren’t good for some demanding mobile uses or for
power-user applications such as data analysis and complex computing, he
added.

There are plenty of choices when it comes to thin clients. For example,
Wyse Technology of San Jose, Calif., offers a series of small units for the
desktop and the laptop. Sun Microsystems sells the energy efficient Sun Ray,
and HP makes the Neoware thin client series. Such devices are attracting the
attention more and more CIOs. Mann points out that thin clients essentially
eliminate desk-side visits by IT support to fix PC problems, install new
software, perform upgrades, etc., which is a huge cost saver by itself.

“They certainly reduce hardware costs. The average thin client is probably
around $150 and will last for 4-6 years, whereas a basic thick PC is probably
$600-$800 and will last 2-3 years,” said Mann. “They also make software
management much easier and less expensive, because just one or two standard
images can replace potentially hundreds or even thousands of individual
systems.”

This can improve security and compliance because applications and data are
centralized in the data center instead of being scattered and available on
hundreds or thousands of individual systems. A big fan of the thin client is
Jack Wilson, enterprise architect at Amerisure Mutual Insurance Co. based in
Farmington Hills, Mich. He believes CIOs should shift their view of thin
clients from tactical to strategic.

“Thin clients are new to many IT shops and perhaps more importantly, they
haven’t thought of it in terms of it being part of a competitive strategy,”
said Wilson. “Many tend to think of it only in a call center scenario or have
the misconception that it will limit people’s ability to function.”

Amerisure operates nine remote offices in the Midwest and South. With
around 800 employees, desktop management is a real issue. Wilson believes the
standard bulky desktop model is fragile at best. In his experience, one
change tended to break something else. If he upgraded software, for example,
it might have a cascading effect throughout the infrastructure.

In addition, remote PCs and laptops proved a nightmare to manage. While IT
attempted to push out software and updates, users would be merrily
downloading and installing their own applications, leaving the doors wide
open to viruses. That led Wilson to investigate the thin client option.

His company decided to re-architect the enterprise centered around pizza
box servers from Dell; Citrix XenApp software; VMware virtualization; and
super-slim Wyse 5150SE, S50 and X90 clients. These tiny devices don’t have
hard drives, fans or CD-ROMs. Wilson characterized them as being little more
than a circuit board running Linux with a Citrix client. They are about the
size of an external CD drive. They also have a keyboard, mouse and screen.
The desktop models are around $250 each.

He justified the entire upgrade based on the cost of one PC refresh.
Organizations typically change out a third of their PC’s every year and that
keeps a large team busy dealing with desktop images, software changes and
user configurations/data. “Every three years, we would be paying $1.2 to $1.5
million for a PC refresh when you take into account hardware, software and
labor,” said Wilson. “With our current set up we don’t have a single desktop
to refresh.”

These days, if a Wyse unit breaks down, a user takes another one out of
the cupboard and plugs it in. At a cost of $250 each (and $700 per
replacement Wyse unit), he says his hardware costs are much cheaper. And no
more changing out of 800 PCs every three years.

Green Machines

One further element that may tip the balance in favor of thin clients is
power usage. While green IT may be in vogue, it is economics that is really
driving this trend.

“The total power consumption of a typical PC and monitor which can be as
high as 175 watts, whereas thin clients like a Sun Ray can use as little as
four watts,” said Mann. “Thin clients require less physical material in
manufacture, and less physical material is disposed when they are at
end-of-life, so it certainly seems there may be a substantial ‘green’
benefit.”

Article courtesy
of CIO Update

Drew Robb
Drew Robb
Drew Robb has been a full-time professional writer and editor for more than twenty years. He currently works freelance for a number of IT publications, including eSecurity Planet and CIO Insight. He is also the editor-in-chief of an international engineering magazine.

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