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Thin isn't for everyone

Thin isn't for everyone

Stop thinking of "thin-client'' as "starving client'' - think of it as "lean and mean".

MIS groups are piloting different types of thin-client computers to confirm whether they pose a viable, less expensive alternative to the PC. So far, the answer seems to be yes, at least for certain users and applications.

Most of the current deployment is occurring in areas where thin-client computers were expected to do well - as replacements for dumb terminals linked to Unix servers or IBM mainframes. PCs running custom, task-oriented applications such as data entry or call centre operations are another likely target.

But early experience also shows that properly deployed thin-clients - with enough local memory and back-end server power on a reliable network - can meet the computing needs of a surprisingly wide range of users.

Perhaps you've heard that thin-clients usually cost less than desktop PCs. Windows thin-client pricing ranges from about $US650 to $US900, but various options can quickly boost the sticker price. Java thin-clients require more memory and powerful processors, raising the price tag to roughly $US700 to $US1700. Again, hardware and software add-ons can make them as pricey as some PCs.thin-client installation is usually much easier than configuring a PC because thin-clients are designed to fit into the existing application and network infrastructure. But the initial cost of deploying thin-clients may be only marginally less than the same number of PCs in a large-scale rollout. The real savings are expected to occur later, when managers need to deploy new applications or add or change users.

Limitations

That's not to say you could deploy these things blindfolded. For one, there aren't many applications and servers for Java thin-clients to choose from. And the limited scalability of Windows NT servers hampers Windows thin-client deployment. Hundreds of thin-client desktops may require scores of such servers to ensure adequate performance.

What's more, administrative tools for either type of thin-client are scarce and immature. In the meantime, you must use DOS batch files to automate installation and configuration.

Finally, there's little hard data on the exact impact many thin-clients have on network traffic. But early deployers haven't seen either type of thin-client bog down existing, well-designed networks and find the additional load manageable and acceptable.

Initial users fall into two broad classes - those accessing Unix and mainframe applications and those accessing Windows applications.

"Our research shows there is a level of senior management users where thin-clients fit well,'' says Greg Blatnick, vice president of Zona Research. "They want to access rather than locally process information. The other areas [where thin-clients fit] are data entry and customer service.'' Java isn't yet a major influence at most sites. "Today most companies are not using Java for anything like enterprise-class applications,'' Blatnick says. "Java is used mainly for enhancing HTML content on Web pages. But they have a pretty high level of interest in Java, so it's likely to be a factor in the future.'' Which type of thin-client, if any, is best for you depends on a wide range of variables. The key questions are: how important is it to administer a distributed desktop environment, and what do your users need to do?

If they're only accessing Windows applications, a Windows terminal will suffice. You may want to include optional software to access the odd Unix or mainframe host application. But a Java client may be better if Windows isn't a fundamental part of the network and you want to embrace Java in the future. Both types of devices can increasingly do the same job if you add some software.

Burlington Coat Factory Warehouse, in the US, is replacing a mix of terminals, PCs and Unix workstations with about 1000 thin-clients. The company chose to deploy the @workStation from Neoware Systems (formerly HDS Systems). The Java network computer runs Neoware's client operating system and accesses Burlington's core Unix applications. In the future, more employees will need to access the company's growing intranet.

For years, Burlington has based its computing on large Unix multiprocessor-based systems that run big, centralised databases and applications. Michael Prince, Burlington's chief information officer, sees almost no limit to who can use the thin-clients in such an environment.

"We have some people designing store layouts using AutoCad software,'' he says. "The secretaries in our legal department are heads-down in WordPerfect all day long. And we have some merchandisers with laptops and spreadsheets. They'll keep their PCs.'' In general, users are able to deploy thin-clients without changing their networks or applications. Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College in Shell Lake runs its appli-cations on AS/400 servers. The systems administrator deployed six IBM Network Station thin-clients by loading IBM's Network Station Manager software on an AS/400 and accessing it with a Web browser to configure the thin-clients. The server software has been stable and easy to use, says Ray Peterson, an IS specialist at the school.

At Burlington, Prince recently converted about half of the merchandise accounts payable department's 70 users to thin-clients as part of a move to deploy Oracle's Financials application on a multiprocessor Unix server. In the past, these workers used terminals. Two technical support specialists installed 36 of the Neoware thin-clients in a week.

Record roll-out

Sun Microsystems rolled out 3100 of its JavaStation I thin-clients internally by the end of July - the largest known deployment to date. Few hard statistics on network use were available by press time, but Sun MIS managers say they've seen little impact on the network.

"Our initial monitoring showed more frequent traffic, but the size of the packets was smaller, so it seems like a wash,'' says Ann Wondolowski, Sun's director of the Information Resources Java program.

Performance is affected by many variables. But Wondolowski says the most important appear to be those associated with the database and application servers, not with the JavaStation or the network load.

You face additional costs if you're deploying Windows thin-clients - which are accessing applications running on an NT server - and you want existing Unix applications to run on NT. You have to rewrite the applications and ensure they work with their companion applications and back-end databases.

For example, Retired Persons Services (RPS), the mail-order pharmacy arm of the American Association of Retired Persons, of Alexandria, Virginia, will eventually deploy about 1200 Neoware @workStations.

Call centre representatives currently connect to a Unix version of the main pharmacy program, but RPS has ported a few parts of this application to NT-based NTrigue software from Insignia Solutions. NTrigue, in turn, incorporates Citrix Systems' WinFrame software.

The ported applications have to be tested to make sure they run properly and work with each other and back-end databases, according to DJ Jenkins, a systems administrator at RPS.

There can also be a host of niggling changes that can interfere with smooth deployment. RPS staff had to work patiently with Neoware and a small flock of software vendors to get the right terminal emulation software for the @workStation.

The ability to print at the desktop, taken for granted by PC users, can be painfully slow on thin-clients. One automotive repair chain piloted a thin-client from Boundless Technologies and found it took five minutes for an on-screen picture of a car part to print out, recalls Oscar Smith, president and CEO of major thin-client systems distributor UCSI Distribution. Boundless sped up the print time to less than a minute with its Priority Print program that loads into the thin-client's ROM, Smith says.

As these sites found, the surest way to know if thin-clients work for your computing environment is to test them. The server-oriented thin-client, especially with its focus on Windows applications, is more mature than the desktop-oriented thin-client, which is not so widely available and is still waiting for a portfolio of third-party and homemade Java applications.

The numerous thin-client pilot projects now under way demonstrate that MIS groups have already decided the thin-client idea has merit. The pilots will determine in the next few months if it also has a future.


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