Network administrators often face the frustrating dilemma of deciding whether to use new or emerging technology. A good case in point is thin client technology. Although it’s been available for some time, many companies haven’t taken advantage of it. You may have heard of the benefits of thin clients—but would moving to such a technology really improve the way you do business? In this article, I’ll discuss this issue and offer some tips to help you make that decision.

First came mainframes
Thin clients are similar to mainframes, which were around for many years before PCs. Many “experts” predicted the demise of mainframe technology, but it is still in use in one form or another.

Mainframes have several terminals connected to one central server that serves the terminals with applications, data, and configuration information. The terminals are dumb monitors that simply communicate with the main brain of the system.

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The older mainframes offered a number of advantages: They usually required only one or two people to operate them, they were easy to understand, they were fairly stable when properly set up and maintained, and they were reliable and easy to secure. Most of the terminals didn’t have local floppy drives so users couldn’t install programs. In addition, one mainframe could handle numerous terminals.

So what wasn’t to like? Mainframes fell out of favor because they were considered slow and expensive to operate, storage space was limited, and they had little or no graphics support. But today’s mainframes, such as those from Sun Microsystems, are quite the opposite. They have blazing speed, lots of memory, lots of storage space, and all the graphics support you could ever need.

Benefits of going thin
In even the smallest of companies, there are typically several dozen PCs, all networked, in addition to numerous pieces of hardware, software, and other equipment. When companies look at the time needed to maintain this kind of system, they can quickly see it is quite expensive.

While PCs are quite complicated, especially when networked, thin clients offer some of the simplicity of mainframes. A thin client is controlled by a dedicated main server, which provides applications and other resources to any number of terminals. The terminals usually have just enough intelligence to operate the mouse, keyboard, and monitor. A thin client terminal generally does not have a hard drive, and normally, it doesn’t even have a floppy drive.

Just like the old mainframe systems, users don’t have to worry about software problems or hardware failure. With a thin client system, the user logs on and starts working. If the server fails, it can quickly be replaced. These clients are extremely long-lived and reliable and cause few maintenance problems. In addition, they run graphical applications such as Microsoft Windows and Office.

Also as with mainframes, thin systems offer security advantages. With a traditional network, such as Novell, the user has access to just about everything on the network. Even with passwords and other preventive measures, a user with enough knowledge and expertise can crack the system. In the thin client environment, this becomes difficult because there is no hard drive, floppy drive, CD-ROM, or modem. To gain entry to the system, a user would have to break in to the server, which would not go unnoticed. The security benefits are enough to make most managers take a good look at the technology.

Other thin client advantages include simpler application upgrades and a common access point for company data. Because the applications are located on the server, there’s only one copy of the software to update and any changes are instantly available to all users. And with one central server, all users have access to any data that is stored on the server. By contrast, sharing or serving data on a large network can be costly and difficult to organize.

Reducing total cost of ownership
The cost of ownership and operations is always an issue for network administrators. With a thin client system, the total cost of ownership is reduced dramatically—some estimates are as high as 50 percent. You don’t have to replace hard drives, floppy drives, modems, or pay software-licensing fees. Not only that, but the stress level of your employees should decrease due to fewer support calls.

In today’s ever-changing world of buyouts, restructuring, closings, and downsizing, you have to protect your job however you can. What better way to do this than by cutting the operations costs for your IT department? Look at your total costs of operations for the last five years. What have you spent the most money on? Outsourcing?Maintenance?Software? Imagine a department you can run with two or three employees, less maintenance, and lower software costs. Your electric bill may even go down because you won’t have all those monitors sitting around soaking up juice.

The sheer practicality of this system should convince your superiors of the benefits of making such a move. The attractiveness of not having to purchase so many PCs and other equipment is another good argument—and don’t forget the savings you’ll recognize from less software licensing.

Thin client products
While many companies are trying hard to get a secure foothold in this new thin client environment, Microsoft and Citrix Systems are undoubtedly the key players. Microsoft provides Windows Terminal Server, while Citrix promotes its MetaFrame architecture. These two architectures use terminals that handle input and output for the monitor, keyboard, and mouse. Sun Microsystems has been promoting graphical support for thin client terminals with its Sun Ray product, which runs Java and native Solaris applications.

Linux is also worth considering because it is cheap and there is much better support and applications for it now than in the past.

A viable option
Thin client systems are becoming more common because they are practical, cost-effective, user-friendly, and offer a lower total cost of ownership. Thin client technology is the answer to complicated computer systems that are expensive, hard to maintain and operate, and quickly becoming less user-friendly.
Are you using thin client technology? Has it been a positive or negative solution? Send us an e-mail describing your experiences. To read more about enterprise applications, visit our briefing center.