When it comes time to refresh the PCs at your organization, you might want to consider thin client technology for some or all of your users. Thin clients, or terminal devices, are relatively inexpensive up front but rely heavily on the company server(s) for their processing power, storage space and just about everything else.
Theoretically, thin clients make sense for organizations of any size – as long as they have a competent, dedicated IT person, or staff. “SMBs tend to be the Mom and Pop organization, and they tend to be focused in the vertical market that they’re involved in. IT, for one thing, is an expense, and it’s probably a pain in their backsides,” says Rob Rabey, account manager at Myra Systems Corp., of Victoria, BC.
- Specific savings await: Many people get confused about the real payoff of thin client technology, says Rabey. They think that the savings come when they replace all their expensive PCs with little boxes, because they are cheaper. In face, the money saved up front compared to what you’d spend on a ‘fat box,’ or PC, isn’t that significant, and it needs to be reinvested in the back end (the servers) anyway because that’s where the processing takes place. “There are no upfront savings necessarily,” says Rabey. It ends up usually being a wash in terms of raw dollars.” Savings come over time via more efficient administration. When you add an employee, or if a user has a problem, IT doesn’t have to worry about fixing a hard drive, for example. “You either reboot the box, or if it actually does fail, you just replace it with something else, you plug it in, turn it on and away you go. There’s nothing local to the box,” Rabey says.
- Cut your virus threats: One big advantage with a thin client is that, in general operating conditions, it can’t get a virus. It could if it is has an operating system embedded on a chip, which Microsoft offers via organizations such as Wyse in what they call embedded operating systems. (These are scaled-down version of, for example, Windows XP or Windows CE, and devices are available that have that technology embedded on the chip, explains Rabey). “But you can lock the systems in such a way that you can’t really write to them. So technically you could [get a virus] but in general operating conditions, you can’t.”
- Painless patchwork: When you do have to install new antivirus software or upgrade Microsoft Office for your thin client users, you only have to install it on the server once. Everybody who accesses that server via a thin client desktop will automatically get that new version. This is a huge advantage over the alternate scenario, where an IT person must go to each individual machine to upgrade software. If each upgrade takes an hour or two and you have 100 PCs, these hours will quickly add up. There are advantages to the thin client approach, even compared to a network environment that has automated their PC upgrades so they can be done from the administrator’s desktop, says Rabey. You still have to get the update to the users’ PCs, which will tie up your network’s other traffic. “You’re still going to tie up bandwidth and time for each machine, which is going to need to be rebooted, and checked and all those things.”
- Software is pushable: A lot of today’s software technology now is being pushed to an intranet, an extranet or to the Web via a portal. In other words, many applications aren’t running locally anymore, and you only need a browser to access them. And if you are in an environment where everything is published via a browser there’s no need for any local desktop software. “You just need to connect to something,” says Rabey. “When you’ve built a thin client environment it’s very easily portable to the Web, in the sense that you can publish your applications [there], and you can be anywhere in the world and access your office. You don’t need a PC, you don’t need a laptop, you just need a browser and that can be in an Internet cafÈ or a friend’s house in Germany. So that comes with the thin client technology.”
- Don’t forget outsourcing: Yes, it is possible to get into a contractual arrangement with a company that can provide your thin client network with support. It’s done a lot in thin client technology environments, says Rabey. “Once you’ve got your operation running in a very standardized way, and if you’re delivering your services to your employees via thin client, in a lot of cases you can outsource the management of that because you’ve got it built in such a fashion that it’s very reliable and robust.”
Rob Rabey is an account manager with Myra Systems Corp.
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