HP, Sun take different paths with thin clients

HP, Sun take different paths with thin clients

Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard Co. are each offering new thin-client computing technologies, but they're giving users different choices: server-based clients versus ones that are supported by rack-mounted blade PCs.

HP today plans to start shipping blade PCs equipped with a version of Advanced Micro Devices' Athlon processor developed for the new systems. The devices replace a line of desktop blades based on Transmeta's Efficeon processor. HP put sales of those models on hold in January, when Transmeta said it would stop making Efficeon.

Sun, which offers the Sun Ray line of thin clients, last week announced a deal under which thin-client market leader Wyse Technology will bundle its devices with software that Sun acquired when it bought Tarantella in July.

The software, called Secure Global Desktop, lets thin clients access applications on a variety of systems, including ones running Windows, Linux or Unix.

The business arguments for moving to either server-based thin clients or blade PCs in data centers are similar. Both technologies promise IT cost reductions through more centralized systems management and reduced desktop support needs. But that's where agreement ends among users and among vendors.

Michael Sexton, director of IT at Princeton Resorts Group in Phoenix, is supporting about 200 of his end users with Wyse thin clients attached to servers that run the company's Windows and terminal server applications. Blade PCs aren't attractive to him because they're more complicated to support than the Wyse devices are, he said.

"I don't have 200 CPUs that can go bad, [or] 400 sticks of RAM," Sexton said. "I only have nine servers."

But Roger Neal, IT director at Duncan Regional Hospital in Duncan, Okla., advocates the use of blade PCs. He has installed blade devices developed by ClearCube Technology to support more than 220 end users.

Blade PCs "are going to continue to grow [in performance and functionality] as fast as the normal desktop, and I think that is a little bit of an advantage" over server-based thin clients, Neal said. Blades also require less-specialized skills within IT than server-based thin clients, which may need employees with Citrix training, he added.

HP's Athlon-based blades will support one user per device and provide a standard corporate desktop image that's indistinguishable from what users would get on a desktop PC, said Tad Bodeman, director of client consolidation solutions at HP's personal systems group.

One of the reasons HP went with the Transmeta chip was its relatively low power use, with each blade using about 25 watts, but HP says the AMD chip is similar.

In addition to the Windows-based blade PCs, HP offers a range of server-based thin clients that support a variety of operating systems. Similarly, Sun and Wyse said that embedding the Secure Global Desktop software in a thin client will allow the device to deliver applications from any source via a network server.

Blade PCs are "not really a solution in a heterogeneous environment" because they usually rely on Windows, said Greg Wolff, director of desktop infrastructure software at Sun.

One certainty is that interest in thin clients among corporate users is increasing, said Bob O'Donnell, an analyst at IDC. Thin clients, whether they're running off a blade PC or a server, currently account for just over 3 percent of all corporate desktops, according to O'Donnell. By 2009, that figure is expected to increase to about 8 percent, he said.

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