The battle rages unabated between thin-client and client-server environments. For the most part, thin-client offerings have had the unenviable role of not quite having lived up to their potential. While arguments about security, centralised management and total cost of ownership are all very cogent and certainly in their favour, thus far thin-client sales have failed to fulfil the rather grandiose expectations predicted in the latter half of the 1990s.
In 1997, Gartner analyst Neil MacDonald predicted that by the end of 2001 20 per cent of the desktop market would be thin. Yet according to Jeff McNaught, vice president of market strategy for thin-client device vendor Wyse, the figure is closer to 1 per cent in the US.
John Vinehall, business solutions architect at integrator Protech Australasia, points out that the antipodean case was peculiar as integrators initially were dealing with very low levels of brand recognition.
"The technology has been around for a long time, but it was difficult going to the end users with names like Citrix and Wyse because they didn't recognise them," Vinehall said.
However, Vinehall believes the last six months have seen thin-client technologies take on new momentum in the Australian market, as multinational vendors increasing their local presence.
"At first thin-client rollouts represented a pretty significant risk for end users," Vinehall said. "The initial pay out is sizeable, but those costs are made up over time. Having vendors such as Wyse on board gave us access to sales resources such as ownership modelling."
Karen Thompson, marketing communications manager for Queensland-owned systems integrator Newbase, says that some of the early adopters were burnt by botched or mediocre implementations.
"Planning is really important in thin-client rollouts; if you don't get it right from the start, it is a bit difficult to change things later," Thompson said. "It is a little like taking the bricks out from the bottom of their structure."
While thin-client technologies haven't really achieved what was predicted for them, neither have they gone away as successive generations bring out an ever-increasing range of features. Vinehall believes the market is finally recovering from an early adoption hype that saw end user's expectations set too high.
"We are definitely seeing strong growth, especially over the last six to eight months," Vinehall said.
Industry pundits point to a merging of technologies, as thin-client devices gain some weight (via add ons such as local disk drives) and the operating systems diversify into new areas allowing centralised management to be rolled out across a range of different offerings. The flexibility of thin-client-style software solutions is providing increasing success in multi-device environments, as the software's design allows for cross-platform operations. The centralised management common to thin-client solutions also allows for easy access to legacy processing and data environments, opening up some potentially lucrative markets.
Where did we come from?
Gary O'Brian, marketing director, Asia Pacific, for thin-client software vendor Citrix, characterises the development of thin-client software in three separate phases.
"Scalability was roll one of the dice. We have achieved that now with server farms that can run up to 1000 servers at the one time," O'Brian said. "Thin-client management was roll two of the dice and now we are up to Web interfaces. Roll three is all about allowing businesses to get access to applications via the Internet."
In fact, Citrix was so serious about the Web-centric directions of thin-client software that it purchased Web applications development company Sequoia in March.
"Our purchase last year of Sequoia really signalled how serious we were about taking thin-client technologies online," O'Brian said.
Similarly Stephen Balicki, director of software distributor Fluid Connections, believes the greatest challenge facing many in the industry at the moment is how to integrate legacy systems into more available environments.
"Most large-sized companies and many government departments still have legacy systems that they are now trying to access and update through more contemporary methods," Balicki said. "IT environments are evolutionary not revolutionary - IT environments develop over time, and in order to marry old databases with new access, you need something in the middle."
Balicki points out that as the Web is increasingly used for the transferral of data, information companies are more often faced with the need to either provide a complete overhaul of their systems, or find some way to get access to their data.
Audrey Lyon, territory manager for software vendor WRQ, believes this "legacy-to-Web" market will continue to be strong for some time.
"Anything that made it past Y2K is not going anywhere for some time," Lyon said. "Many of these companies want to continue to operate in a similar environment. They want access to the same information, but they want access to that information via the Internet."
According to Lyon, when faced with the choice between totally rewriting the software and somehow interfacing with what is already there, WRQ invariably goes with the latter.
"With host integration we can create a whole new business process without having to open up the old code," Lyon said.
Ivan Lobo, general manager of thin-client software vendor Tuxia, points out the importance of open source developments when it comes to such environments. Tuxia has developed a Linux-based thin-client operating system that provides high levels of stability and robustness with a reduced price tag.
"Our solutions are really taking off in Asian markets," Lobo said. "Australians tend to be more conservative when it comes to picking up on new technologies. We tend to buy things after they have been proven overseas."
Browsing the market
Web-delivered thin-client software solutions in turn are leading to some important changes in the market place. Traditionally, when people envisaged thin-client solutions they saw a series of chocolate box-sized devices attached to keyboards and monitors.
Browser-based solutions are now ruffling that image. Citrix's O'Brian points out that Citrix software can operate in a multi-device environment. Browser access to thin-client operating systems allows devices as disparate as iMacs, handheld iPaqs and even 386 boxes to run the same applications.
Protech's Vinehall points out that the hybrid environment is the most popular style of rollout on the Australian market.
"We are seeing more of a hybrid type model," Vinehall said. "Most of our rollouts involve a mixture of different devices."
Vinehall believes browser-based solutions still have a long way to go because Internet connections are often not sufficiently robust to provide end users with high-quality connections.
Newbase's Thompson sees browser-based thin-client environments as more crucial to the continued success of thin-client offerings.
"People are a looking for something that everyone can recognise so that it requires limited training," Thompson said. "Browser-based thin-client offerings are allowing companies to implement true remote access and reduce their overall IT costs at the same time."
Whichever way it ultimately goes, and whatever form it finally takes, thin-client technologies are shaping up to be a strong presence on the Australian market place. The combined forces of multi-device environments and Internet capabilities may significantly affect its final incarnation. Nonetheless, in a slow market where end users are looking to save any way they can, the TCO advantages of thin-client technology may just see it finally take off.