Thin and Thinner: Wireless Poised to Shake Up Thin Client Landscape

IT managers are finding the promised land of thin-client andserver-based computing a frustrating and difficult place. But they arediscovering significant cost savings there, and few who have headed down thepath are looking for a way back. What’s more, the coming explosion ofultra-thin wireless devices makes server-based computing likely to grow inimportance.

ENTrecently conducted a Web survey of randomly selected IT managers andprofessionals to check the pulse of the thin-client market. A total of 109companies responded to the survey, representing a range of industries.

For years, the IT industry has toyed with several approaches tothin-client computing. The common element to all of the approaches has been theconcept of an access device that relies on the network rather than localprocessing power or storage.

Is the era of big disk drives on corporate clients over? Aboutthree out of five IT respondents -- 64 percent -- indicate the answer is yes.These managers report having some type of thin-client deployment at theirsites.

But these thin clients are as varied in architecture as theChicago skyline. While the common perception of a thin client is that oflightweight hardware devices, a browser running on a fully-loaded PC can alsobe considered just as "thin" in many respects. The benefits arefar-reaching as well, from lowering administrative costs to providing equalaccess and ending technology inequities among user groups. "We now canavoid the perennial computer envy issue. When we upgrade a location, everyoneis upgraded simultaneously," says one survey participant, an IT managerfor a large utility.

The survey also confirms that thin-client computing -- no matterhow you define it -- is on a growth trajectory. Most sites, in fact, still useWindows NT Workstation or Windows 3.1/95/98 PCs as their thin-client operatingsystems. Interestingly, while Windows CE has been knocked around, 37 percent ofrespondents with thin-client systems have deployed this thinned-down version ofthe Windows operating system. Wireless technologies are also having their day:22 percent of respondents use these devices in some form or other, and sayusage will grow.

On average, about 52 percent of respondents' applications arethin-client enabled, typically reaching about 800 end users. A vast majority ofcompanies with thin clients, 83 percent, expect the number of thinned-down endusers to grow over the coming year.


By far, the most popular deployment of thin clients among surveyrespondents was use of a terminal server on Windows NT/2000 to deliverapplications to networked PCs. Microsoft's Windows Terminal Server leads thepack in terms of thin-client connectivity method, adopted by 70 percent ofresponding sites using thin clients. Citrix WinFrame is a close second, adoptedby 66 percent.

The interplay between these two solutions was evident amongrespondents as well, and some were not happy with the way the market has beenunfolding. "Microsoft interfered with the Citrix marketplace when itintroduced Windows NT Terminal Server Edition," says the IT director for amajor health care organization, which supports 1,000 thin clients. "We hadto adopt a holding pattern with Citrix WinFrame until Microsoft achieved betterperformance with Windows 2000."

"Thin clients are not all they're piped up to be,"agrees the IT manager of a midwestern financial services firm. "Wedeployed Citrix and were so unhappy that they moved to Windows Terminal Server,and then we became even unhappier. So we reverted back to Citrix."

One respondent, IT manager at a major eastern utility, decries thecomplexity of configuring Windows Terminal Server. "Features such aslock-down policies and load balancing take significant effort," he says.Plus, cost issues get in the way. "When last I tried to justify athin-client project, the Windows Terminal Server cost was much higher than thecost of a stand-alone workstation, which by the way we are getting pretty goodat managing."

Another 31 percent said they achieved thin-client connectivitythrough browser-based, front-end deployments. "Thin client is overrated atthis time," according to one respondent. "We already have thinclients everywhere through Web browsers with Web applications," he adds.

A related approach for accessing legacy systems -- PC-to-host andWeb-to-host terminal emulation -- were each used by 17 percent of therespondents.


While the market has been in overdrive with wireless announcementsand pronouncements, only 5 percent of respondents with thin clients enableconnectivity through this method. However, more than half of companies withthin-client systems -- 52 percent -- expect to increase commitment to wirelesssolutions over the coming year. Almost a quarter of this group expects to seean increase in wireless thin clients of greater than 25 percent.

Among the handful of companies that have adopted wireless, theaverage numbers of users is about 36. One company in the survey reports having200 wireless-based users.

While the actual connections over wireless protocols is small,about 22 percent of the companies now support wireless hardware -- 19 percenthave employees using palmtop computers and 5 percent issue WAP phones, withsome overlap between the two.


The most prevalent application delivered through thin-clientsystems is e-mail, cited by 89 percent of sites with thin-client systems.Another 83 percent offer thin-client access to databases, and 81 percent offerthin-client connectivity to file and print servers. Another 73 percent offeraccess to personal productivity applications.

Interestingly, 55 percent of this group also offers accounting orfinancial-based applications through thin-client architectures. More than twoout of five sites -- 42 percent -- also link thin clients to ERP/enterprisebusiness systems.

Of course, thin clients play well to the application serverprovider (ASP) model, since it becomes irrelevant where servers andapplications reside. "We are actively planning to install a vertical ASPusing a thin-client model," says the IT manager of a major southernfinancial services company. "In our part of the financial servicesindustry, we expect thin-client solutions to dominate the delivery ofapplications software. Our only dilemma is whether to implement it exclusivelyfor this company or make it a separate enterprise and offer it tocompetitors."

It's important to note that simply deploying thin clients doesn'timprove the quality of applications, according to one respondent: "I workin a university environment. Very often we are asked to support the most poorlywritten software on earth. This causes a great deal of difficulty at thedesktop level. Using thin clients speeds up the delivery of the problemsoftware to our end users, but not necessarily in getting the software to workproperly."

"There is a learning curve to supporting Microsoft and otherPC-based applications as well as managing users," cautions a utility ITmanager, who currently supports 110 thin clients. "Also, software vendorshave not designed well for multiuser environments. Some applications, such asMicrosoft Publisher, do not allow individual customization when running offWindows NT Server. Or, the individual settings for Microsoft Word are lost whenapplying Microsoft patches to the server."


By far, older Intel-based PCs reign as the hardware of choice formost respondents' thin-client hardware choices. Eighty percent use older PCswith x86 and low-power Pentium chips. Windows-based terminals, which areessentially PCs without disk drives, are used by 48 percent of this group.

New thin PCs on the market from major vendors are popular."We have been using Compaq iPaq's for our accounting and support staff fora few months now," says one respondent. "While these are not as muchthin clients as they are light PCs, they definitely are a welcome addition toour organization, offering top performance for low cash in areas where oldermachines had been gasping for life."

"I have some workstations that are now 6 years old, includingthe one I am currently using," says another respondent. "Thisapproach seriously extends the life of these devices."

Operating Systems

Windows NT Workstation reigns supreme as the thin-client operatingsystem of choice, used by 70 percent of respondents. Sixty-seven percent useWindows 95/98 to support thin-client workstations.

While it has received much attention, Linux was barely on theradar screen as a thin-client enabler in this survey. About 14 percent ofrespondents use it as a thin-client operating system, and only 8 percent use itfor serving applications to thin clients.


Most of the respondents are sold on the administrative benefits ofthin clients. About 84 percent of respondents cite the decreased administrativeand maintenance costs that thin clients can bring, and another 83 percent citefaster deployments and upgrades.

For companies with far-flung operations, thin clients offer anideal solution. "We are located in six separate buildings, and with thisapproach all users see one of two platforms and we can shadow any user toresolve any technical issues," says one respondent. "This platformalso allows users who move between buildings to be able to easily login totheir environment."

There is widespread potential for cost reductions as well. Almosttwo-thirds of the sites -- 65 percent -- with thin-client implementationsreport cost reductions of greater than 10 percent. Forty-nine percent, in fact,report cost savings greater than 15 percent.

"For any organization with over 25 PC users, thin client isthe way to go, if for nothing else than the reduced support costs, especiallyin areas that require frequent software updates to business systemapplications," says the IT manager of a distribution/retail firm.

Along with cost savings, more efficient deployment of IT resourcesis enabled by thin-client computing. "We already have more than 80 percentof our users on thin clients," says another respondent. "For theenvironment at our agency, the use of thin-client computing has been essentialto make the most efficient use of IT staff. Due to budget and salaryconstraints, there have been times when there have been only one or two peoplein the IT staff to support users, the network, Web server, and databaseapplications -- including programming."

Security is another benefit cited by survey participants."Centralized client management lends itself to tighter security,"says one university IT director.

"Our proprietary and safety-critical and trustedapplications, hosted on a locked-down server, are protected and more reliablethan applications loaded on PCs maintained by a third-party organization,"adds the IT manager for a federal government agency.


There are some significant difficulties that arise fromimplementing a thin client strategy. Fifty-five percent of respondents citeissues with end-user resistance and corporate cultural issues. "The usersthink you're taking their toy away from them, and giving them a device thatdoes nothing but work stuff," states the IT manager of a western hotelchain. "No software from home, no games, no viruses, no fun."

This cultural bias against thin clients could be exacerbated incompanies with large groups of power users. "Most users here require lotsof personal productivity, and this is not prime turf for thin-clientdeployments," observes the IT manager of a 6,500-thin-client site.

Bandwidth and network issues are other difficulties cited by 43percent of the respondents. System architecture issues also stymied 45 percentof respondents in implementing thin clients. "We've written a thick-clientsystem that uses less resources than a thin one," says a financialservices IT manager. "Performance at the client is fast and often requiresno data communications -- code files reside at the client but are automaticallyupdated so the user community has no responsibilities for updating theirmachines. Sure beats dealing with the ever-changing browsers and the subsequentproblems that presents."

Thin Client Operating Systems

 Percent in use by respondents*
Windows NT70
Windows 3x/95/9867
Windows 2000 Professional45
Windows CE37
Locked-down NT workstation30
Locked-down 3x/95/98 client20
Windows NT embedded12
Locked-down Windows 200012
Mac OS11

*Multiple answers possible, total adds up to greater than 100 percent
Source: 2000 ENT Thin Client Survey


Thin-Client Hardware

HardwarePercent in use by respondents*
Intel based PCs80
Windows-based terminals48
Palmtop computer19
RISC-based workstation16

*Multiple answers possible, total adds up to greater than 100 percent
Source: 2000 ENT Thin Client Survey


Respondents' Estimated Cost of Thin Clients vs. Standard Desktops

Higher cost3
No difference24
1-10 percent lower7
11-15 percent lower16
More than 15 percent lower49

Source: 2000 ENT Thin Client Survey


Respondents' Projected Growth of Thin Clients Over Next 12 Months

No change13
Increase 1-10 percent17
Increase 11-25 percent30
Increase >25 percent36

Source: 2000 ENT Thin Client Survey


Respondents' Projected Growth of Wireless Thin Clients Over Next 12 Months

No change41
Increase 1-10 percent29
Increase 11-25 percent7
Increase >25 percent23

Source: 2000 ENT Thin Client Survey