Hardware

Think 'thin' to lower bandwidth requirements

Budget concerns, complicated infrastructure, and user frustration are all reasons to move away from a fat client networking strategy. Here's a compelling argument for using thin clients to save time and money.

There's a lot of talk today about broadband technologies and pushing fiber optic cables to their limits, but the best way to increase users’ surfing speeds is to decrease their download requirements. Thinking “thin” is about developing technologies and techniques that minimize the actual amount of data that needs to be received. This strategy is similar to a programmer’s philosophy of writing code in order to minimize the amount of memory required by a program.

I’ll describe what a thin client strategy entails and describe a scenario that explains its advantages over traditional fat client hardware for maximizing data throughput.

What is thin client?
The thin client concept is certainly not a new idea. The old, green-screen, dumb terminals that used to link users to the mainframe were the original thin clients. Basically, today’s thin client strategy involves a server slicing off a piece of itself (called a session) and using the required amount of computer resources to fulfill the client’s request.

Once a client session has started, all of the client’s applications and processing occur in the space that has been set aside for it. The number of sessions that can occur on any given server will depend on the processing power of the server and the amount of RAM the server has available. The client then receives a bitmap image from the server and needs to only send keystrokes and mouse clicks back to the server. In most networking environments today, our users have all the software they need on their machines; they don't have to rely on some massive server to supply their applications. This localized computing power has its own rewards but also has its share of troubles.

Consider the last time you had to install the latest security patch or virus update on 10,000 of your company's NT workstations, tried using a push technology software, or—worse yet—had to rely on your users to do the upgrade themselves. Think about the time you would have saved if you'd had the capability of installing that same security patch on only a handful of servers in a matter of a few hours (rather than weeks). Here are some more advantages to thinking thin:
  • There is only one operating system to upgrade.
  • There is a one-time installation of software applications and upgrades.
  • You can deploy more powerful applications without upgrading the desktops.
  • You can finally use all those 486s you still have in the computer closet.

A thin client solution
You're probably saying to yourself, “Sounds great, but I certainly don’t have the budget for this, and I still need to solve my bandwidth problems.” As you may recall, I mentioned that thinking thin is about developing technologies and techniques. Here’s an example of how those technologies and techniques come into play.

Suppose company XYZ has a number of employees that travel away from headquarters, but these users still need to get their e-mail. Each user is given a laptop and a dial-up account to access the corporate LAN. The users arrive at the hotel and miraculously achieve a connection speed of 14,400 bps. The highest priority on their to-do list is to check e-mail, so they start up Outlook and wait. The users might as well order a pizza because that e-mail will not arrive in 30 minutes or less. The major problem with this type of fat client approach is the bandwidth constraints imposed by the hotel dial-up connection and the number of bits required to download all the e-mail that the users keep in their Exchange folders and attachments.

The thin solution
Now consider the same conditions as above, but this time you have set up Outlook Web Access (OWA) on your corporate LAN. Your users start the browser to log in to their e-mail account. The e-mail instantly pops up in the browser, and the users can read all their mail in a matter of minutes. Of course, if the users need to view an attachment, the bandwidth issue remains, but at least with this scenario the users can read their e-mail and select which attachments they want to download.

From a budget standpoint, this technique does not require a costly server farm. All that is required is an NT server running Internet Information Server (IIS), an Internet browser on the client machine, and OWA, which will most likely be the only additional cost you might incur.

Summing it up
The thin client strategy is an excellent way to minimize those massive bandwidth footprints instead of installing larger pipes. Whether your new thin look is hardware, software, or a combination of both, it will definitely pay off in the long run if you start thinking thin now.
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