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Lite is right? The future of thin computing

Lite is right? The future of thin computing

Thin client vendor Wyse’s CEO, Tarkan Maner, drives around in a car with a bumper sticker featuring a PC with a red line through it. Even in Silicon Valley, this is often misinterpreted as a protest against political correctness, but Wyse has always been seen as the ‘anti-PC company’.

The company has been at the forefront of thin client technology since 1981, when it became known for being the dumb terminal company. “Now,” quips Ward Nash, Wyse’s general manager Asia-Pacific, “we make semi-smart terminals.” In 1995 the company started making Windows-based terminals. “We’ve got the patent for it,” says Nash, “so we still get royalties for it when other people sell thin clients.”

Even though the popular media largely stopped saying ‘thin computing’ would be the next big thing in the late 1990s, it hasn’t gone away. The business potential offered by thin client devices and desktop virtualisation is still difficult to overestimate.

Research organisation the Yankee Group says thin client technologies are on the upswing; the flipside being that enterprises spend about $860 per user, plus network upgrades, to get a desktop virtualisation project up and running in the first year; at least according to Forrester Research analysts.

Desktop virtualisation should eventually provide long-term cost savings, says Forrester, but ROI may take anywhere from months to a few years.

IT managers know managing PCs is like trying to paint a bridge; it’s a never-ending job keeping up to date with the needed hot fixes, service packs, antivirus definitions and anti-spy and malware. Large organisations and smaller, cash-strapped companies need relief from the endless refresh cycle.

In a case study for Computerworld Australia, ‘No big, fat losers in this thin-client makeover’, Sandra Rossi writes about how Australian company Ingeus Group struggled to keep its IT support costs to a minimum. Head of the company’s IT services group, Luiz de Almeida, decided a move to thin client was unavoidable. “We saw clearly that using PCs would not give us the standard operating environment we needed to keep support costs to a minimum. The best way to set up offices quickly was to adopt server based computing and thin client technology.”

According to de Almeida, Ingeus today has more than 800 thin clients operating across Australia with no direct field support. “Our costs, we estimate, would be at least four times higher if we used PCs and we cannot afford that,” says de Almeida.

Opportunity cost

What happens in technology adoption in the US and Australia, is often eventually scaled down and replicated in New Zealand. The progressive demands of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act dictate that soon, patient data can no longer be stored in hospitals for privacy and security reasons. In the future, COWS, or computers on wheels (thin computing devices wheeled from bed to bed) will display applications, operating systems and data served from somewhere else. Central and local government are likely to follow suit, in time.

For customers there are cost saving opportunities, not only around the devices, but also relating to their maintenance, software, licensing and power consumption. These opportunities carry over to vendors and resellers.

Some may argue that since you can now buy a brand name PC for around the same price as a thin computing device, you’re not actually saving any money. But this fails to take into consideration the annual cost of running a PC in a corporate environment, which Wyse claims can be as much as A$4500.

Once you take the cost of management software into account, the server it runs on and the frequency of PC replacement — bearing in mind a thin client device might last twice as long — you begin to realise that managing a fleet of devices that contain hardly any moving parts, no fans or hard drives, thin clients are a CIO and IT manager’s dream.

Thin clients typically use only six watts compared with an average PC’s 150 watts, although consumption varies from device to device. In US PC World’s recent article ‘8 Gadgets to Green Your Office’ Francine Kizner reviews Encore Electronics’ thin client, priced at US$110. One PC can power around 10 of these; one server can power around 30, writes Kizner.

HP is active in the areas of both green computing and thin clients, and low power consumption presents an opportunity for the vendor to play up the environmental benefits. Blair McKenzie, product manager in HP’s New Zealand Personal Systems Group for commercial desktop, workstations, remote client solutions and displays, says it has always included that as part of its products’ key features and benefits.

“All of our devices — with the exception of the two top-end ones, which are specific for a blade-workstation environment, with dedicated graphics and cooling inside them — have no moving parts, so not only are they highly reliable, they use much less power.”

Certain kinds of environments suit ‘zero client’ devices, with no flash memory and zero storage. Streaming applications into a zero client virtual desktop suits schools, colleges and laboratories where you don’t want the management complexity of having multiple applications installed on a single PC.

Now, with mobile thin computing options that look like regular notebooks but with no hard drive or fans — and which are often bundled ‘free’ with a broadband card, such as is done by Telstra in Australia — thin client is beginning to look like an increasingly cost-conscious option.

The Wyse guys

Wyse is watching Asian telecommunications companies closely, says Nash. All of them are working on internal cloud computing projects. These companies have realised that since they already offer datacentre services and are selling broadband and device plans to SMEs, they should also be offering applications via the cloud, data hosting and storage.

Similar initiatives failed in the past, because such services were mainly offered by two to five-man bands, and no major company was going to risk its IP on a company that might go bust. Today Amazon Web Services is offering cloud computing services, as are Google and Microsoft Azure. “Instead of selling broadband for $30 extra a month, these guys are saying, ‘Give us your applications and your data and we’ll host them,’” says Nash. “The future is going to be a battle between the telcos and Amazon, Google and Microsoft.”

It’s no secret that Wyse has come to dominate thin computing by stealth. Many of the thin client devices sold today by Dell, Lenovo, IBM, Acer and Fujitsu are made by Wyse. Its biggest competition comes from HP, which notably does not use or sell Wyse devices. However, “any time you see a Compaq thin client,” says Nash, “it was built by Wyse.”

Unsurprisingly, HP’s McKenzie says the principal thin client opportunity for resellers is its own offering, which covers everything from basic appliance-level devices to blade workstation, client-class devices that can support up to four displays.

“From our point of view, the principal opportunity is the end-to-end solution that HP can offer,” says McKenzie. “That could start with a virtual desktop infrastructure solution, or Citrix Terminal Server, all the way to a full-on blade workstation, blade-PC environment, or a hybrid of all of those. It gives our partners the ability to get the right solution for their customers.”

HP also has its eye on industry sectors such as healthcare and insurance, which McKenzie says are geared toward thin client technology. “Anything requiring datacentre-level security, where you don’t want the information to be on the client device itself, and you want the ability to lock down configurations, and you determine that in your discussion with your customer.”

McKenzie says security and privacy concerns are driving an increased interest in thin client. “We’re seeing that requirement starting to come into a lot of requests for information around this technology.”

Thin-client challenge

Barriers to thin client adoption include user acceptance and application compatibility. Larger organisations that want to serve their users hundreds of applications also face thin client challenges.

As far as the user is concerned, a thin client has to run exactly like their PC for it to be accepted. In the past, if a thin client device was connected via Microsoft Terminal Server or Presentation Server, even user interfaces that looked exactly like a Windows desktop would not play a movie properly, or allow users to plug in a USB device and be able to find the driver. VoIP didn’t work and neither did dual monitors.

However, desktop virtualisation has matured. Major thin client rollouts are beginning to raise interest among banks and financial institutions. The Australian Securities and Investments Commission is moving to virtual desktops, providing banks with a virtual desktop case study they can use to win over management to their own projects. It will be using Wyse terminals.

HP’s McKenzie urges resellers to remain focused on the right opportunities. “Understanding the customer is the key thing because that will then lead you into the next stage, which is the product and the environment selection, and we’re here to help them, if they need it.”

Resellers, he says, must quiz their customers closely about their precise thin client requirements if they’re going to deliver satisfaction.


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