Hardware

Managing the thin-client renaissance

Thin clients may be the wave of the future, but such a large wave can threaten to unbalance an IT department. Thomas Pack reports on the possibilities—and pitfalls—of thin clients.


What do new approaches to server-based computing mean to system administrators and support professionals?
Every business day, Federal Express handles 58 million electronic transmissions that support the distribution of almost 3 million packages. To serve its worldwide customer base, FedEx had frequently used innovative information technology, but the company’s mainframe computing environment and text-based 3,270 terminals couldn’t handle any new approaches to mission-critical functions.

To solve the problem, FedEx tried a distributed client-server system, but the expense and difficulties of updating a PC-based desktop environment soon compounded management problems. So the company started looking for ways to leverage its expertise in developing state-of-the-art Windows-based systems while looking for tools to manage tens of thousands of desktops, control costs, and provide rapid deployment of new applications.

The answer? The company decided to install thousands of Winterm terminals. Users access applications from three data centers that house clusters of Windows NT Terminal Server systems. (Specifically, the architecture includes Winterm 2315SE Windows-based terminals and Windows NT Server 4.0 Terminal Server Edition with Citrix MetaFrame server software.) Microsoft Office and other Windows applications are available for customer service, ground operations, and dispatch. The configuration also supports airport-based weather and maintenance operations.

According to Thin Planet , the FedEx system not only benefits users by providing quick access to innovative tools, but it also has lowered the company’s total cost of ownership through reduced hardware expenditures and demand for ongoing support and maintenance. “Fat clients were not only costing us a lot of money to buy and maintain. They were outdated as soon as they came out of the box,” said FedEx desktop engineer Ancel Hankins.

David Friedlander, an analyst with Giga Information Group, said systems such as FedEx’s reflect a renewed interest in thin-client computing. “A few years ago, there was a lot of talk about network computers, but there wasn’t a lot of product,” Friedlander said. “There were no really big names behind it. You had, obviously, X Windows terminals as one variant, but those things never took off—certainly not to the extent that Terminal Server and MetaFrame have. This is the first time that we see [thin-client computing] becoming mainstream.

“With Microsoft involved and a mainstream operating system like NT having that option—which will be integrated in Windows 2000—not only are thin clients getting media attention and vendor hype, but there’s actual usage almost on par with the amount of attention they’re getting.”
Potential benefits:
  • Ease of updating applications.
  • Savings in total cost of ownership with reduced hardware costs.
  • Less ongoing hardware support and maintenance.
  • Improved ability for applications to scale.
  • Servers can be centralized.
Potential drawbacks:
  • Compatibility problems.
  • Systems can become sluggish.
  • Security vulnerabilities.
  • Increased need for support professionals with thin-client skills.
  • Products are still immature.

Managing server-based systems
One reason for the increased use of thin-client applications is the emergence of powerful servers capable of supporting all types of clients: thin, fat, and all gradations in between. Therefore the term “server-based computing” is now frequently used to describe the growing variations on the thin-client approach to systems management.

Friedlander said an obvious benefit of such an approach is “lower admin costs for the desktop systems. It’s much easier to administer the desktops even if they’re PCs, but you have thin-client sessions deployed to them. You don’t have as many things changing at the desktop level. And, of course, the desktop equipment can be cheaper if you use terminals. I don’t see it as a major trend yet, but if companies start doing that, they’re going to see longer equipment life cycles.”

Recent studies bear out Friedlander’s points. According to Zona Research, organizations using thin-client configurations instead of a traditional fat-client approach can save 54 to 57 percent of their system administration costs over five years.

Another obvious benefit is the ease of deploying applications in a thin-client environment, Friedlander noted. “It is much easier than touching each desktop,” he said. “Literally you press a button and, if all goes well, you come back in the morning and the install will be done and the application will be available to your 2,000 users. A traditional approach might take weeks or months to do that same project.”

He added that thin-client users can expect continued increases in business functionality, especially when server-based computing can be extended to wireless, portable devices for employees in the field. “That’s looking more long-term,” he said. “But one of our clients, a major insurance company, has been testing applications for deployment with intranet-based access to Terminal Server using wireless technology and palmtops or other wireless devices.”

Of course, server-based computing also brings with it a few drawbacks. For example, system administrators often run into problems with security and compatibility. “The vendors would prefer to say these really aren’t significant problems,” Friedlander noted, “but from all the conversations I’ve had with end users, there are quite a few problems in that regard—not that it’s stopping people from using this technology. The benefits still seem to overwhelm the disadvantages, but the technology is immature. The NT 4.0 Terminal Server is just kind of tacked on to NT 4.0, and right now, not a lot of vendors have recognized that when they’re designing their peripherals. They haven’t tested everything to ensure compatibility.”

Thin-client support
For support departments, server-based computing ultimately could help eliminate many issues now considered commonplace, Friedlander said. “If you put terminals out there, you have fewer hardware issues. In general, the support issues for applications deployment and for troubleshooting some of those applications should be easier.

“You can also shadow people’s sessions with this technology. You can get an idea of what they’re doing wrong. Granted, there are technologies that allow you to do that for the PC, but shadowing a thin-client session is, by most reports, a lot easier to manage from the help desk perspective. At the same time, though, since some of the technical issues I mentioned are not documented thoroughly by any vendor, it’s easy to stumble upon problems that no one knew about.”

Of course, not everybody who’s experimented with thin clients has realized these benefits. Tom Sawyer, assistant vice president for information technology at the University of Louisville, says the sheer enormity of the applications needed to drive server-based computing actually can result in dramatically increased demands on support departments.

U of L is installing the PeopleSoft Human Resources and Student Administration modules. “It's a huge system with over 6,000 setup tables and 4,000 screen panels,” Sawyer said. “The complexity of the applications has increased significantly and clearly takes more people to support. While it may help to streamline business practices and make your accounting office more effective or your payroll office more efficient, it takes more technology professionals to support this environment. I would take issue with any vendor who claims it’s more efficient from the IT professional perspective.”

Sawyer added that the PeopleSoft systems still depend on “fairly thick clients,” but he expects future versions of the software to be increasingly Web-based. He said he believes many other vendors and organizations will move to Web-based systems as well.

“I think you will see a mass migration to Web-like applications. I don’t know that the industry is there yet, but something must be done to simplify what’s happening on a person’s desktop. With existing ‘thick-client’ technologies, every time you try to install a new package, whether it’s a new version of Microsoft Word or whatever, it might mess up that payroll client application you’ve got running on your system. Also, the management tools aren’t yet available to manage this environment like they are in the mainframe environment.”

Thin clients and the Web
Friedlander agrees that Web-based computing eventually will become the most prevalent type of server-based computing. “Terminal Server and MetaFrame are transitional technologies,” he said. “Web-based technologies, including the Web-based application development tools that ViewSoft offers, eventually are going to make up the bulk of the usage—and Citrix just acquired ViewSoft, by the way.

“People don’t want to give up Windows, but Windows hasn’t really been tailored for the wide variety of platforms on which people want to deploy applications. I’m talking about cell phones and PDAs and terminals and anything else people can get their hands on that has a browser or some other type of access to data, whether it’s plugged in or wireless.

“So today’s thin-client technology is a transitional technology that allows people to access data with Windows applications, but I think more and more companies are going to start considering Web-based computing for future applications, or for updated versions of their current applications, especially the legacy ones.”

Friedlander said the move to more Web-based computing will dramatically affect current pricing models for LAN-centric applications. “Terminal Server is charged on a per-named user basis and is fairly expensive, even with the licensed pricing changes they made back in February. Even Citrix, although it’s licensed on a concurrent user basis, is expensive.

“Web-based computing, or Web-based thin clients, or whatever form they come in will challenge the pricing model. Whether or not they mean to, Microsoft and Citrix are changing the economics of operating system licensing by offering thin clients, and they’re going to make it more difficult for both themselves and other companies to charge on a per-named-user basis, especially with application outsourcing. As that picks up and takes off, they’re going to have a lot of trouble with customers who aren’t outsourcing. Microsoft is going to get a lot of grief for charging so much money for its product.”

Even further down the road, the server-based model may appear very different than it does today. Frank Gillett, senior analyst at Forrester Research, said, “I don’t think thin clients, as currently conceived, are ever going to take away a big chunk from PCs. Years down the road, we’re going to see some kind of significantly different approach to the client-server computing architecture. Basically, I’m expecting both today’s version of thin clients, as exhibited by Citrix and others, and today’s PCs to be washed away by something else simpler and more straightforward—something that divides up the labor differently than either one of those models.

“Specifically, I expect to see a device that can pretend it’s on the network, save up the things you do when you’re offline, and then connect them when you’re back online. Today’s thin-client architectures can’t hope to do that.”
  • Fat client: A computer that includes an operating system, RAM, ROM, a processor, and installed applications that run on the desktop (compare with “thin client”). In a server-based computing system, fat clients can operate as thin clients.
  • Network computer: A thin-client device that executes applications locally after downloading them from a network.
  • Server-based computing: An approach to delivering an application in which the software’s logic executes on a server. Only the interface is transmitted via a network to a client device.
  • Session shadowing: A feature of some software that lets IT support professionals remotely join, monitor, or take control of a user’s application session.
  • Thin client: A low-cost computing device that accesses applications from a central server or network, so it usually doesn’t need powerful processors or large amounts of RAM and ROM.
  • Total cost of ownership (TCO): A model that helps IT professionals analyze the direct and indirect costs of buying and maintaining an application or a system. Besides the purchase price, TCO typically includes training, upgrades, and administration. Lowering TCO is a key benefit touted by server-based computing hardware and software vendors.

Thomas Pack (ThomasPack@aol.com ) is a freelance information technology reporter.

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