Does this PC make my enterprise look fat?

The promise of a thin client has always been functionality of a desktop with the low maintenance and overhead of a dumb terminal. If that’s the case, why haven’t they overtaken PCs?

Thin terminals are basically screens without brains. Applications are delivered to the clients via a server. The intelligence and processing power is housed in the server, while the applications themselves are piped to a user’s desk through a network or Internet connection.

At a Tuesday press briefing at one of Sun Microsystems of Canada’s offices in Toronto, solution architect Edward Moffat said that the advantages are such that they could realistically replace PCs in many working environments. There’s no information stored on the thin client itself (it doesn’t contain a hard drive) which helps to eliminate some data security problems. You can’t steal or lose what you can’t see.

They also have no moving parts, so they operate quietly. Support costs are minimal, since any application or operating system troubling-shooting or updates are done centrally at the server level.

“If you’re doing gaming, thin client isn’t for you. But you really are hard-pressed to come up with a rationale for doing dedicated computing on your desk,” said Moffat.

Bob O’Donnell, program vice-president of clients and displays for IDC, agreed that ease of use, low-maintenance issues and attractive features like a small footprint make thin clients ideal, in theory. But for many users and IT departments, they represent a radically different approach to computing that’s hard to come to terms with.

There’s a comfort-level with PCs in most IT departments that simply doesn’t exist with thin clients, he said. There may also be friction between server and desktop specialists within IT departments. “There’s actually some issues with people not wanting to give up control of their own little fiefdoms. . . . There’s also the issue that some end users view (thin clients) as a technical demotion.”

The reason that more people aren’t using thin clients instead of PCs? “Inertia,” offered Stephen Surbey, IT manager at B.A. Robinson Co. Ltd., a Winnipeg-based plumbing, lighting and heating retailer and distributor. “If (PCs) are your background, that’s kind of what you stick with.”

B.A. Robinson has been using Sun Ray thin client devices from Sun Microsystems for the last five years and now has a total of 250 – a mix of older terminals and the latest Sun Ray 2 machines, which came out earlier this year.

The company had used green-screen VT terminals running Unix for its text-based applications in the past, so moving onto thin clients like Sun Rays was a natural evolution, said Surbey.

“With more vendor information on the Web and more customers dealing with us through e-mail, we needed to update our infrastructure,” he said. “Rather than trying to put a PC on every desk, we decided to try going the thin client route.”

B.A. Robinson uses Sun Rays for its ERP system, as well as for running Firefox for Web browsing and e-mail, and Open Office or Star Office for word processing and spreadsheets.

For Terry Verity, the CIO of Seneca College in Toronto, thin clients are useful mainly as Web terminals. The college uses Sun Rays for an Internet café environment for student use. They’re able to go online, check e-mail and also use them for low-impact applications like the student information system.

“We’ve found that the Sun Rays (work), because they’re basically a Web-based tool for us – almost everything people do is Web-based. We do have document creation and those things, but even with document creation we have content stores but the Web is how manage them,” said Verity.

But not all applications will work in a thin client environment, particularly custom-built ones.

“Most major corporations have a custom application or two – something that is a critical part of their business,” said O’Donnell. “If it doesn’t run, that’s a huge problem. While (thin clients) have got a lot better, there are still some applications that don’t run, and that’s the case, that’s a deal breaker in some situations.”

Both B.A. Robinson and Seneca use PCs in their environments in cases where thin clients won’t do. The former for high-end CAD applications, and the latter for course material with Microsoft-intensive environments.

But thin clients represent the future of their desktop environments, they said. Verity plans on opening a brand new Sun Ray lab at the college’s new Markham, Ont., campus, which will be the site of a high-performance computing lab. Surbey said he tends to add thin clients gradually over time as business requirements dictate.

“There’s very few places where we feel we have to deploy a PC,” he said.

But Surbey may in the minority for the foreseeable future. Switching from PCs to a thin client environment is more a “cultural transition in many ways than a technical one,” said O’Donnell, “and that’s makes it a little bit more challenging than just a better computer.”


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