Doug Klein is the president and general manager of NCD Systems, which is shipping a version of Windows NT called WinCenter 2.0, designed to work with a $US1,000 network computer (NC). NCD is ideally positioned to realise the promise of a network computer - a thin client that provides familiar Windows applications from a fast server without the need for a traditional PC's storage, configuration, or maintenance costs. Klein spoke to IDG's Michael Parsons about why such a simple idea is such a complicated sale to corporate IS managers.
ARN: Why choose NCD's architecture, instead of buying ordinary PCs and servers?
KLEIN: The question is, given that you have a limited pipe, how do you maximise the usage of that pipe? The cold hard reality is that big servers somewhere else will always be faster than your desktop. It's just a simple reality - if there's a bigger machine, bigger is better. And most likely there's going to be a bigger one someplace besides your desk. And the real question is, can you get to it reliably?
Think about where NCD is with the whole NT story - we're pushing the edge on people putting NT out as a network resource. We have pilots all over the place. People are really scratching their heads as to what this means. I can give you a box for under $US1,000 that looks like a PC (well, it doesn't exactly look like a PC, because it's smaller), but from a user's point of view I can put that box on your desk. I can put some Intel box someplace out on the network running this WinCenter 2.0 version of NT, and I can have the screen on that box come up looking just like an NT screen. The user can't tell he's not on NT. Now, what's the advantage of it? If you look at all the activity with NT clustering and fault-tolerant boxes and Tandem and Amdahl - think about what it means if I can give you an absolutely fault-tolerant PC.
ARN: What's really behind all this talk of network computers and Internet terminals?
KLEIN: What's happened is the corporations are very aware of cost of ownership. These things are just too expensive. The solution to the problem is not to throw more stuff at it. Think about why computing is expensive. The hardware guys miss the point. It isn't the hardware; it's not how much does the Pentium cost, or how reliable is the disk drive. It's a question of software reliability.
ARN: Why is that?
KLEIN: The more operating systems you have to deal with, the more problems you have. And the software guys' answer to this question is to throw more software at it. I had a conversation with an end-user, a guy who happens to work for Larry Ellison. He was getting all these workstations for free from Sun because of some deal, so he wasn't going to buy any more terminals. So we got into this philosophical argument. I said, 'Assuming the price was the same, would you still buy it? Would you go to workstations instead of the terminal?' He's a software developer. He said, 'Yeah, I understand the issues of managing software and multiple operating systems and applications spread all over the place, but I believe that problem is going to be solved, because people are going to come out with network management software and remote distribution.' Well, that's Band-aids. At some point, somebody has to perform surgery, and say, 'Let's cut the cyst out.' Our model of the world is: 'Less is more. Less hardware means that you have more time to do your real job; less software means that you have more time to go home at night rather than sit there and tweak around with files.'
ARN: What's the corporate user's objection to this approach?
KLEIN: Their biggest fear is that this system is nondeterministic. So you'll hear customers say, 'I'm afraid the network will break', or, 'I'm afraid that on Thursday afternoon when they run payroll my performance will go to hell.' They're afraid it's not enough and they're afraid they can't predict it.
ARN: Isn't that true of their existing LANs?
KLEIN: Absolutely. It's also a cultural thing. Americans don't like to share. We find this phenomenon different in other countries. If you look at the X-terminal business, we have a very healthy business in France. French organisations adapt to this easily. If I try to sell this in England - mixed reactions. If you try to sell in the United States, it's all over the map. I'll talk to some guy and he'll say his biggest fear is that the guy down the hall can affect him. It's that independence issue. And you say, 'What fear? Your PC is too slow.' He says, 'Yeah, but it's my PC.' Now, the reality is, people share network bandwidth all the time.
ARN: What do you think about Oracle and Sun's vision of the network computer?
KLEIN: For obvious reasons, the politically correct answer for me is, 'This is the greatest thing that ever happened to the world.'
In fact, from a technology standpoint I'm still not quite sure those guys get it. I'm sceptical as to their ability to deliver on their promises. But from a business and from a consumer-awareness point of view - where our consumer is the corporation - this is a very good thing. For NCD, this is a huge opportunity. We think that we will become the definition of these boxes.