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Thin Clients

As businesses seek to increase the value of their technology investments, the costly high maintenance "fat client" PC model is increasingly under fire. Thin client systems replace individual desktop PCs with a centralized server that presents the applications and data users need at individual workstations.

For businesses, server based thin client computing is attracting attention because of it's ability to solve some of the most vexing problems facing IT; the staffing shortage, data privacy and security, and the quest for value from technology purchases. Because thin clients address all these problems, it's not wonder that experts say the market for thin client technology will grow nearly 500% from the year 2000 to the year 2004.

Nevertheless, much is misunderstood about thin clients. For example, many IT managers hesitate to implement thin client solutions out of fear that end users will resent the loss of their personal hard drives. Despite evidence to the contrary, some technologists worry that network performance will suffer when processing is moved away from the desktop and back to the server.

What goes into thin client computing?

In addition to the thin client hardware that sits on the desktop, server based thin client computing requires three elements. An operating system environment that supports thin clients (Windows, UNIX, Linux are the most common), technology that offers IT greater control over network traffic, and centralized application and client management software.

Thin clients hark back to the mainframe dominated era before computing was pushed out to end users in the form of PCs. A problem with using PCs as anybody who has ever worked at a help desk knows, is that users get themselves and their companies in all manner of trouble through unauthorized applications, downloads, and errors. By returning control of the applications to centralized servers maintained by knowledgeable IT staff, thin client computing can solve many of these problems.

The Lean and Mean Payoff

Thin client benefits start with a lower initial cost. Although it's possible today to buy PCs for $500, experts say most enterprises pay significantly more for their desktops. On average, most users spend about $1500 on each new PC.

Pressured by competition from low end PCs, thin client vendors have continued to drive down their own prices. For IT this translates into substantially lower initial costs. However, when comparing the cost of PCs and thin clients, your hardware cost is simply the tip of the iceberg. The major savings come in reduced needs for maintenance, help desk expertise, and other IT staffing requirements.

With thin clients, applications reside on a central server. This makes it a snap to upgrade and deploy applications and upgrades. In a properly implemented thin client environment, thousands of users can be upgraded to new versions of software overnight. For most IT organizations, the single biggest budget item is staff. This is where thin client computing really distances itself from "fat" PCs. "Reduced reliance on high level IT resources" may be thin client's number one advantage. A network administrator may spend 70% of his or her time on end user issues. Thin clients let network personnel devote more time to their more challenging, strategic work. Additionally, thin client computing allows organizations to use fewer help desk staff. With thin client environments in place, a help desk person is immediately familiar with the equipment and software deployed throughout the enterprise. There is no guesswork to what configuration the user may have. Coupled with the ability to remote control a user's screen, fewer help desk employees can become much more effective.

Gartener suggests that thin clients can save an IT department 80% in support desk costs. When applications are moved to the server, the increased control for the IT department brings almost immeasurable benefits in uniformity, security, and data privacy. Thin clients virtually eliminate virus threats. You can control user access, control what users copy to their local drives, and filter email attachments.

Energy Savings

One unexpected recent boon to thin client sales in California and other states is the energy crisis. Thin client devices generally consume only between 1/5th and 1/12th of the energy of their PC counterparts. While the requirement for an increased number of central servers may offset a small part of these energy savings, organizations with remote offices can often eliminate servers in those offices entirely, enabling still greater net reductions in electricity usage.

The Growing Market

With more companies realizing these benefits, it should come as no surprise that International Data Corporations (IDC) predicts US shipments of enterprise thin client devices will grow from 929,000 in the year 2000 to over 4.8 million in 2004. What are the key factors that will drive the market growth? The IDC report notes several, including:

  • IT managers under constant pressure to reduce costs while improving access to enterprise data will "continually evaluate desktop purchases" to determine which type of system delivers the best price/performance ratio for their organizations.
  • As adoptions rate of thin clients increase, the benefits and cost advantage of this solution will become increasingly well known in the IT community driving further growth in the market

As IDC states bluntly, "legacy data has never, and will never, go away." Thin clients make dealing with legacy material much easier, because the it staff can manage the material centrally so users don't corrupt it. Finally the growth of "fat pipes" - high bandwidth solutions such as DSL and cable modems - will also spur the adoption of thin client computing. IT managers feared that moving applications away from the desktop would prove to be a drag on network performance. However, the availability of high bandwidth has made thin clients an attractive option

Overcoming Resistance

Despite the compelling advantages of thin clients, they sometimes face opposition within some IT organization for outdated or inaccurate reasons. At the top of the list is the fear that end users will rebel when their "fat" PCs are taken away. Although some early grousing among users is common, most studies show an increased user satisfaction with the IT department after moving to thin clients.

Some IT departments mistakenly believe that thin clients aren't standard products. This is a misconception because thin clients gain their power from the servers and networks that support them. Servers and networks are ubiquitous and very well understood so fears of nonstandard devices are unfounded.

In the end, thin client computing combines the security and control of a mainframe with the interface and function of a PC. as IT organizations seek to stay lean and mean, as users move from centralized office complexes to remote and mobile positions, it seems inevitable that many will cut out the "fat" in favor of a thin client solution.