A thin client by another name

Somewhere along the line personal computers stopped being primarily business tools and became consumer devices, and now consumer applications often show the way for business use. Take streaming – one immediately thinks of streaming audio and video, but now you can also stream software.

Software streaming is a variation on utility computing. “The name of the company is our mission,” says David Greschler, co-founder and vice-president of corporate marketing at Softricity, Inc., a Boston-based maker of software-streaming technology. “It’s Softricity, the merging of software with electricity.”

Greschler talks about “light-bulb” computers — commodity machines you can plug in anywhere. With streaming, applications don’t reside on the PC, but on the server. Yet the applications execute on the PC. When the user starts, say, Excel, streaming software like SoftGrid sends a block of Excel code to the client. It doesn’t send the whole package, just the code needed to start up the program. Then, as other pieces are needed, they’re sent to the client.
Once code reaches the client, it’s cached, so it can be retrieved more quickly when needed again. The first time a user starts a program on a particular machine, Greschler says, it will take 10 to 15 seconds to transfer the initial block of code over the network. The next time that user wants that same code, he claims, it will load faster than if the software resided locally, because it’s cached.

Why software streaming? There are three main arguments.

First, installing software on computers messes them up. Anyone with a PC that’s a few years old can see this, especially if you’ve installed lots of applications. Even if you remove programs you no longer want, you never really get rid of them. Leftover bits and pieces lie around the disk drive and the registry like your ex’s Abba records, gradually slowing down the machine. Software streaming avoids this because the software doesn’t get installed on the PC at all.
The second is that the applications are all in one place, so updates become much easier. Rather than going around to every client when you need to install an update, you update the software on the server.

Organizations with a lot of PCs are most interested in software streaming, says Roy Zatcoff, executive vice-president of marketing development at Neoware, Inc., a software-streaming company in King of Prussia, Penn. “They go crazy trying to administer all of these different OS images.” Neoware’s software streams the OS as well as applications; some systems stream only applications.

The third argument is that with all the applications in one place, users can be anywhere. If I sit down at a different PC, I can still run my applications, and with my customizations intact.

Okay, but isn’t this really just a thin-client model? Well, yes — different people use the term thin client to describe everything from diskless PCs that execute applications locally to terminals, and software streaming fits somewhere in that continuum. The search continues for the right balance between server and client, and this is just one more way of approaching it.

Grant Buckler is a Kingston, Ont.-based freelance writer.
gbuckler@cogeco.ca

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