Bridge of the Enterprise: The Thin Client vs. the PC

The media is abuzz with the thin client again. This time though, it’s an issue of the real cost of deploying thin clients vs. the cost of deploying PCs.

As it turns out, the cost of placing a thin client on the desktop to provide all the services of a PC are substantially higher than initially expected. If the only goal an organization has is to deploy a thin client with a browser that can be used as a dumb terminal with Web access, the actual cost seems to land in the $1,000 range.

The trouble starts when the thin client is used to run office automation applications like Notes, Word or 1-2-3, etc. Now you will need to deploy an environment capable of supporting the loading of applications from another server, which requires a more significant server as well as greater network bandwidth, and so on. There are certainly substantial costs here. Running more of an intranet environment will also require a more robust server – in many cases, multiple servers.

The net result is that many companies are finding the true costs of deploying thin clients to be in a range closer to $2,000. When you consider these numbers, deploying PCs becomes more attractive. Or so many media types would have you believe!

It is fairly easy to calculate cost of ownership when you count only direct costs, such as hardware, software, necessary upgrades for servers and cabling, and so on. It appears as though this is the analysis many pundits are using. The soft costs – minor technicalities such as installation and set-up, loading of applications, help desk and maintenance – are being overlooked. This is where the bulk of desktop deployment costs reside. These costs are two to three times that of the hardware and software.

In these costs the thin client’s financial benefits can be found. The soft costs – usually associated with the costs of people needed to install and maintain PC hardware and applications – are where the real dollars are spent.

I have seen some comments recently that by the time some companies pay for the thin clients, all the costs can add up to as much as $ 1,800, and they can buy well-configured PCs for that amount. While this analysis is true, upon deeper analysis and the calculated costs of support, the PC alternative becomes less attractive. These costs can easily double or triple the costs of installed PCs.

This is not to say the PC on the desktop is not an appropriate solution where necessary. The real cost differential between the two alternatives should dictate which device is deployed in any particular circumstance. This is where the challenge lies. Most users will balk at thin client and beg for PCs. Why? No one knows. But, try to explain to a user why they will be losing their PC in favor of a thin client and see what I mean. Many of them will make you feel as though this is a personal attack on them.

The key to proper outfitting of the corporate desktop rests squarely on how well the duties and utilization of applications fit the user in question. Users who do data entry, perhaps browse the corporate intranet and the Internet, and maybe even occasionally write a letter are prime for a thin client. Anything more for this type of user is a waste.

Users who do more functions than these – knowledge workers, developers, analysts, and so on – require more than the thin client can provide. These are the people whose desks will continue to require PCs.

The politics will always be an adventure, but the cost benefits gained by deploying thin clients is real and significant.

A veteran of the IBM midrange arena since 1983, Chris Gloede is executive VP for Business Solutions Group in Wayne, Pa.