Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, office computers consisted of enormous boxes with multiple input/output units all connected through a veritable web of wires and cables. The boxes were called mainframes, the input/output devices were called terminals and, all in all, a computing solution was very heavy and very costly.
Driven by Moore's Law, processing power grew at an astronomical rate and within a decade or so networked PCs began to appear, while the mainframes were gradually relegated to being sold second-hand through online auction sites.
Alongside Moore's Law is a lesser known computing law regarding the price per kilo of computing hardware. McCollough's Law states that the only constant in the IT industry has been the price per kilo of computers in US dollars. As the hardware became lighter and smaller, it also became less expensive and more affordable. Invariably bank balance motivation drives business decision-making and as the infrastructure required to store and process data gradually became smaller and cheaper, PCs became more pervasive.
However, in some sectors of the economy PCs are now feeling the heat from the heirs to the centralised mainframe model, thin-client terminals. In an interesting twist of fate, in order for McCollough's Law to continue, mainframe solutions may make a comeback via the super small, footprint thin-client terminals.
Navigating the straits
According to International Data Corp (IDC) analyst Logan Ringland, the thin-client market in Australia is largely unspectacular.
"The way I see it is thin-client offerings aren't growing exceptionally well. We haven't seen any significant growth for the thin-client market in Australia," Ringland said. "Ultimately the market will wither, there will always be a place for them in places like banks, but the market will remain fairly flat."
Ringland believes the thin-client market will be negatively affected by constantly falling PC prices, undermining the financial arguments thin-client vendors are pushing.
However, many in the channel disagree. National distributor Alstom IT is so convinced of the potential success of thin-client offerings that its general manager, Greg Newham, predicts that over the next 12 months more than 35 per cent of company revenue will be generated through thin-client offerings.
According to Simon Le Comte, Alstom's thin-client sales engineer, many studies on the costs associated with thin-client solutions have not indicated the possible savings through TCO (total cost of ownership).
"There has been a definite push forward in the thin-client market place," Le Comte said. "People are starting to realise that the real savings associated with thin-client solutions do not occur at the implementation stage, they occur over a period of time."
Similarly Paul Wilcox, sales manager for thin-client hardware vendor Wyse Technology Australasia, is promoting the overall savings thin-client solutions can provide.
"The bulk of the expense associated with a roll out is not in the initial phase, but in the support you need to provide for 50 or 60 separate PCs," Wilcox said. "Software upgrades are a nightmare and network administrators are constantly kept busy running from computer to computer and not focusing on improving the system overall."
Alstom's Le Comte reported TCO savings of up to 50 per cent over a three-year period. However, he believes the thin-client approach is as much a management imperative as it is a financial one.
"We have seen a lot of interest from the CFOs and the CIOs rather than the IT managers," Le Comte said. "These guys have to pay attention to their expenditure over a period of time, and they are always looking for the opportunity to cut out inefficiencies."
According to thin-client enthusiasts, the introduction of thin-client solutions often involves the elimination of superfluous processing power and memory located close to the end user. Because thin-client solutions require a centralised administration structure, SOEs (standard operating environments) and security issues are easier to deal with. Due to the reduced spec, thin-client solutions also face less risks from the human element than networked PCs because the end users have reduced access to the software and the configuration of their own terminals.
"From an enterprise management point of view, all of your management support is brought back to one central point," Le Comte said. "It is easier to roll out a SOE and keep an eye on the general health of the system."
Struggling with the resistance
Even the most ardent thin-client advocates will admit that many thin-client technology roll-outs are met with resistance.
Nabeel Youakim, managing director of networking software vendor Citrix, believes much of the criticism of thin-client solutions is unwarranted and based on unrealistically high expectations of earlier thin-client models.
"These days you can't fault them," Youakim said. "Thin clients are terminals that have been scaled down to the minimum amount of memory and processing power. It's all about taking the application and running it on the server rather than on individual PCs."
Youakim believes improvements in networking technology and subsequent improvements in the operation of thin-client offerings will lead to continued growth in the market.
"The end user will not experience any change to the way they use their computer, thin-client solutions operate at the same speed as networked PCs," Youakim said.
Even those skeptical about the potential growth in the thin-client arena, such as IDC's Ringland, agree that significant technological innovation has lead to improvements in the types of thin-client solutions available.
"We are definitely looking at a more mature market," Ringland said. "The arrival of Linux-based thin-client devices, as well as less costly software from companies such as Citrix, is opening up the market slightly," he conceded.
Nonetheless, replacing our beloved beige boxes with slimmed down equivalents is generally poorly received in the workplace.
Alstom's Le Comte recognises the resistance and believes the implementation of thin-client solutions has to be handled with care, with a heavy dose of diplomatic intervention on behalf of the HR department. However, he believes changes to workplace dynamics such as hot-desking and remote connection are helping employees come to terms with a myriad of computing solutions.
"At the end of the day users have to change their mentality, they don't have a PC on their desks they have a tool, and the idea is to use the tool which does the job in the most efficient way," Le Comte said.
Wyse's Wilcox concedes that thin-client roll-outs can lead to feelings of inferiority in the workplace.
"It is unjustified, but people don't feel comfortable about changing over their computers," Wilcox said. "A full implementation is best timed with a change of management or other shift, when people are better prepared mentally for a change."
Citrix's Youakim believes much of this resistance will be overcome when end users realise some of the benefits associated with thin-client solutions. He points out that security requirements such as antivirus software and changes to the software can be rolled out in a fraction of the time it takes for it to be loaded onto individual PCs throughout a company.
"It can take upwards of 12 months to roll out new applications throughout a company, but with a networked thin-client solution it takes a matter of hours," Youakim said.
Nonetheless much of the resistance to thin-client roll-outs is generated because end users feel they are forced to give up the personalisation most PC operating systems provide. The importance of screen savers and wallpapers to the individual user cannot be underestimated in terms of staff morale.
Wyse's Wilcox believes it is up to each individual IT department to coordinate the roll-out and operations of a thin-client solution so as to minimise this end-user rejection.
"The end users shouldn't see any substantial difference in the way they go about their tasks," Wilcox said. "The only thing they should be aware of is having more space on their desks. It is still possible for individual users to customise the look and feel of their desktop with thin-client solutions, it is just a matter of the IT department providing them with the opportunity."
There is also change in the air when it comes to the sorts of flexibility provided through thin-client software. Charles Duke, technical director of marketing for development tool vendor Jade, believes thin-client GUIs (graphic user interface) are necessarily becoming more attractive to the end users.
"On the one hand it is about choice, and on the other it is about offering applications which have commercial appeal," Duke said. "Even in traditional thin-client arenas such as call centres and banks there is an imperative to provide a highly graphical look."
According to Duke, Jade is also producing software that enhances the functionality of thin-client offerings by limiting the amount of information passed between the server and the terminals.
"When people talk about thin-client software their expectations generally run to an attempt to have a very low-end machine with PC capability," Duke said. "When every mouse move has to be processed via the server the whole system slows down considerably. However, we are looking at solutions which only process specific changes to the data which ultimately speeds up the process considerably."
Mix and match
While thin-client software and hardware vendors insist that the potential market is in fact horizontal, they still concede that there are areas to which thin-client roll-outs are more suited.
For example, Duke decribes Jade's focal market as "large-scale commercial transaction processing environments".
"We have been very successful in hospital management systems, freight train management systems and other environments where there are multiple users requiring access to the same data via the same software," Duke said.
While IDC's Ringland does not see huge growth potential in the market place, he concedes that there will always be a market for thin-client solutions in large-scale corporate environments with multiple data-entry points.
Industry commentators, however, believe thin-client technology should not be limited to its traditional markets. Increasingly thin-client offerings are being integrated with other technologies in a complete networked solution.
Citrix's approach to networking encapsulates this idea with its proclaimed vision of connectivity from any device, to any device, anywhere, anytime.
As thin-client software is designed to minimal processing specs, it has easily made the jump to moblie devices and remote terminals.
Indeed even Wyse's Wilcox concedes that a combined networked approach is appropriate for most commercial or governmental situations.
"In most cases, a PC network can be replaced by a mixed thin-client PC environment," Wilcox said. "In all workplaces there are those who have higher power and processing requirements."
Wilcox is of the opinion that most environments would be suited to a 20/80 approach, where 80 per cent of users access data and software via thin-client terminals and 20 per cent make use of terminals with higher processing power.
"There will always be people within a company that require higher specs," Wilcox said. "However, most computing requirements can be fulfilled more efficiently through a thin-client solution, and the market is finally waking up to how much money they can save."