Web-to-Host Connections: The Gadgeted Age: Thin Clients Get Even Thinner

The whole trend toward remote and thin-client access has been so much fun for vendors and end users alike. Remember the thrill you had the first time you made a conference call from the beach? Vendors have been working overtime to figure out ways to extend that thrill to enterprise computing, to enable our gadgets to reach even deeper into our businesses.

You may not see it happening out there, yet, there may soon be a time when a good part of your end users will be on mobile or wireless devices at least part of the time. A survey on thin-client computing I recently conducted reveals the impending rise of wireless access, as well as other developments on the horizon that will profoundly impact Web-to-host implementations. The percentage of thin-client hardware in use was broken down as follows: Intel-based PCs (80 percent), Windows-based terminals (48 percent), Other (22 percent), Palmtop computer (19 percent), Macintosh (17 percent), RISC-based workstation (16 percent), WAP phone (5 percent). While this survey of 109 companies covered thin clients of all shapes and sizes, the numbers make a compelling case for Web-to-host, the ultimate "thin" client architecture.

However, there are many clashing visions of what constitutes a thin client. The common perception of a thin client is that of lightweight hardware devices - such as Compaq's iPaq and IBM's NetVista. However, a browser running on a fully-loaded PC can also be considered just as "thin." In fact, 31 percent of the survey group said they achieved thin-client connectivity through browser-based front-end deployments. Web-to-host terminal emulation was used by 17 percent of the respondents.

Another new breed of thin client devices - palmtop computers, PDAs and digital phones - promise to make thin-client computing the rule rather than the exception. About 22 percent of the companies now support wireless hardware - 19 percent have employees using palmtop computers, and five percent issue WAP phones (with some overlap between the two). Fifty-nine percent expect to increase (to some degree) their commitment to wireless access over the coming year, while 41 percent expect no change at all.

This promises to make life very interesting for managers at mainframe or midrange sites. Those sites with Web-to-host arrangements already in place should find the path smoother than companies starting from scratch. Most Web-to-host vendors now offer wireless or mobile products. But, we've got our work cut out for us. The survey finds that only five percent of respondents with thin clients actually enable connectivity to host systems from wireless devices. Among the handful of companies that have adopted wireless, the average numbers of users is about 36 per company, compared to an average of about 800 end users with thin-client access.

Host access through a wireless environment is different than on wired networks. Typical wireless applications may only feature status checking, purchase history, profile modification and purchasing lists. Eight hours of heads-down data entry on a digital phone would be mind-numbing. Plus, any, and all, content has to be squeezed to fit on five-line screens. Storing pre-existing user profiles may help filter down much of the content going to a mobile client.

Plus, being so new, it will take time for IT executives to accept wireless access across the enterprise. GartnerGroup estimates that short life spans and high failure rates will drive the cost of ownership for first-generation mobile applications between two and five times that of the average in-house application. Plus, security is nowhere near as robust as it is in wired environments.

A majority of respondents to the survey, 84 percent, say thin clients save money. Another 83 percent report faster deployments and upgrades. This is all grist for selling Web-to-host proposals to management.

The applications being accessed by thin clients are fairly sophisticated, as well. About 83 percent of companies with thin-client architectures offer thin-client access to databases. More than half of this group (55 percent) also offers accounting or financial-based applications through thin-client architectures. More than two out of five (42 percent) sites also link thin clients to ERP systems.

However, there are issues that continue to stand in the way of thin-client and Web-to-host access. The leading impediment isn't even a technical one - more than half of respondents (55 percent) cite issues with end user resistance and corporate cultural issues, to which managers at Web-to-host installations need to be sensitive. Technical issues, such as bandwidth and system architecture limitations, still dog about 45 percent of IT managers. As noted above, Web-to-host systems takes care of much of the middleware connectivity required for thin-client access. The last mile is up to you.

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