The hype created more than two years ago over thin-client technology may finally have some weight behind it.
Shipments of thin-client devices, the desktop workstations that rely on servers for their applications and processing power, reached 305,000 units in the first half of this year - 83 per cent more than in the first half of last year and only 63,450 units less than in all of 1998, according to a study by International Data Corp (IDC).
Partly responsible are lower hardware prices and cheaper software from Citrix Systems, Microsoft, and Network Computing Devices (NCD), which last year purchased Tektronix's thin-client business unit.
But the ongoing shift to server-centric computing, new opportunities for renting applications and proven technology are also changing the way end users look at thin clients.
The core of thin-client computing - housing applications on a central server - has been growing in popularity more quickly than thin-client devices themselves, said Wolfgang Baltes, general manager at Hewlett-Packard's thin-client division.
Historically, companies have just used their existing PCs to run applications. "They wanted to keep their options open in case server-centric computing didn't live up to its promise," he said. But as PC leases run out, companies are buying thin clients.
University of Utah Hospital in Salt Lake City has been deploying billing, administrative and nursing-station applications from servers for more than three years. Today, 40 per cent of its desktops are thin-client terminals from Wyse Technology and NCD, but its goal is to raise that amount to 80 per cent.
"In March, all the leased PCs start going back," said Jason Traeden, senior systems analyst at the hospital. So far, Traeden hasn't found many areas where thin clients won't work, except for research groups where dedicated power and drive space are required.
The Bank of Nova Scotia in Toronto is using 50 thin clients from Sun Microsystems to replace dual PCs on many employees' desks that ran Unix and Windows NT applications. The bank plans to convert most of its PCs to thin clients by year's end, said Gail Smith, senior vice president.
"It is definitely the desire for a certain class of users to have centralised management" that has catapulted thin-client sales, said Andy Bochman, an analyst at Aberdeen Group in Boston. "There's been a slow education going on" with both customers and vendors.
Servers have beefed up their performance to drive applications, new bridges and routers have lessened network performance problems, and software vendors have created systems that run applications on PCs and thin clients, said analyst Joe Clabby.
Earlier this year, NCD announced new ThinPath and ThinPath Plus software that supports both PCs and thin clients. NCD originally licensed ThinPath for $US295 for five users, but in June the company announced the product would be free.