inside/out: Worth a Second Look?

The buzz is all over the place: PCs are a dying breed. Well, maybe that's a little strong, but certainly alternative means to access network-based information are expected to gain a market foothold. Most of the talk centers on devices that connect to the Internet. But what about devices that connect to enterprise networks?

In 1983, manufacturers of "dumb terminals" observed that the PC market was going to be strong. They dreamed of combining terminal and PC functionality, but in the character-based display world at that time, the concept found little acceptance, and with the PC application market in such a state of flux, it was hard to settle on a design or communications architecture.

The "smart terminal" concept came back to life a couple of years ago in a flurry of announcements designed to address the high cost of PC ownership. Dubbed "thin client computing," the idea is to provide access to all the applications and information people need at their desks while cutting the overall cost of doing so. Instead of a total cost of ownership between $5,000 and $8,000 per desktop annually, these devices reduce the estimated costs by a little more than half. These savings do not come from the up front costs, but from reductions in the ongoing expenses of maintaining and servicing a device that is still function-rich, but centrally controlled and supported.

The flurry of thin client announcements from hardware producers and Microsoft created a lot of confusion, and little real success. Microsoft's purpose, it seems, was to create a lot of FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt), a tactic in which it succeeded for a time. But cooler heads are reconsidering the desktop landscape these days. Network speeds and server software have developed to the point that it is now feasible to consider a thin client approach as a serious option.

The concept is definitely worth a second look by AS/400 managers. Further improving the financial advantage of the thin client solution, Microsoft is reducing its fees for Windows NT Server, Terminal Server Edition. And a number of independent producers, as well as IBM, offer attractive thin client devices.

According to Zona Research, the thin client market is growing at 25 percent per year and will ship about 7,000,000 units by 2002. Driving this growth says independent marketing and sales consultant John Curran, are IT managers who want to deliver to the corporate desktop both PC functionality and compatibility with legacy systems while maintaining a centrally managed environment. Curran, who works with Development Concepts, Inc., a provider of thin client and mainframe emulation connectivity hardware and software (www.visara.com), also says that centralized upgrades and support will save thousands of dollars per desktop in maintenance costs.

In this environment, a Windows Based Terminal (WBT) thin client provides the familiar Graphical User Interface, but relies on the server for all its processing and data storage. The user experiences the same look and feel, but the IT department gains significant savings in TCO. Also, these WBTs contain terminal emulation interfaces to communicate with legacy systems. Each WBT holds its scaled down operating system in flash memory so downloading at boot-up is unnecessary. The OS can be upgraded from the server if required.

Another white paper by terminal manufacturer Network Computing Devices at www.thinplanet.com says the effect of the rush to collaborative computing marks a shift towards a network-centric world, and that the location of applications and data is becoming transparent. This also favors a thin client approach.

When first announced, thin client devices were greatly oversold. Their sales goal now is to achieve a "peaceful coexistence with PCs," writes Curran. The flexibility offered in a thin client solution is attractive in many cases, but not everywhere. For IT shops upgrading from green screen applications or, in instances where non-technical users simply want to get a job done without hassle, thin clients can play a cost-effective role.

Now that the hoopla surrounding the original introduction of these devices is over it is time to take a more sober look at their use. Study the real needs of users, determine if regular upgrades to basic office software on individual desktops are truly necessary, and evaluate whether Windows 2000 is designed more to benefit Microsoft than the user. If the PC boom is coming to a close and if users are finally getting over their infatuation with PCs, just like drivers got over their excitement of annual automobile redesigns, then thin clients are worth a second look.

After 18 years in marketing and sales at IBM, Bob Diefenbacher founded Denbrook Systems Associates, an IT consulting firm based in Malvern, PA. denbrook@aol.com.