IBM Offers New Take on Thin-Client Computing

IBM’s new virtual desktop solution emphasizes a centralized, host-based infrastructure and a lightweight, terminal-esque desktop—and virtualization, too

With its twin emphases on a centralized, host-based infrastructure and lightweight desktop processing hardware, IBM Corp.’s new PC blade infrastructure smacks of technology initiatives past. But there’s a very new wrinkle in IBM’s vision that could make it a compelling technology solution: virtualization. Call it the mainframe-ization of the desktop.

A decade ago, a band of technology CEOs—including Oracle Corp.’s Larry Ellison, Sun Microsystems Inc.’s Scott McNealy, and former IBM Corp. chief Louis V. Gerstner—celebrated the emergence of a new host-based client computing model. Proponents of these new “network computers” tallied up their advantages over bloated, standalone PCs and confidently predicted the inevitable, if not rapid, demise of the Wintel duopoly’s bread-and-butter platform.

Wintel is still going strong, of course, and desktop PCs are more bloated than ever. In spite of the hype, however, network computing does offer compelling advantages, particularly for task-based or knowledge workers who don’t need multi-gigahertz PC behemoths on their desktops. As a result, network (or thin client, as it’s now called) computing remains a viable model—albeit one that’s more the provenance of terminal purveyors like Wyse Technology than database and enterprise applications specialists such as Oracle.

But IBM’s new Virtualized Hosted Client Infrastructure isn’t just an updated or renamed thin-client computing solution. For starters, Big Blue is getting a technology assist from x86 virtualization specialist VMWare and thin-client computing stalwart Citrix Inc. IBM’s plans calls for a healthy dose of its xSeries and BladeCenter Intel-based servers, VMWare’s ESX Server technology, and Citrix’ Presentation Server client-access technology.

In this respect, the Virtualized Hosted Client Infrastructure is quite different from the thin-client solutions of yesterday—or today, for that matter. Instead of requiring the use of a single multi-user operating system—i.e., Windows or Linux—with all of its attendant disadvantages (e.g., comparatively poor linear scalability in large SMP configurations, limited performance and efficiency, and complex administration), IBM’s solution taps a virtual operating system host (VMWare’s ESX Server) that can support dozens of discrete Windows or Linux operating system instances.

While no one would argue that VMWare’s flavor of virtualization is as robust as z/VM, few would deny that it’s probably just the ticket for supporting typical task-based or knowledge workers. More to the point, because ESX Server lets organizations effectively micromanage their server capacity (exploiting as much as 80 percent of an xSeries server or BladeCenter system’s CPU compute resources) they can support more Windows or Linux users on a single piece of hardware than they could using a multi-user approach.

The Mainframe-ization of the Desktop?

The parallels to mainframe capacity management and mainframe client (i.e., terminal) access are striking. After all, zSeries operators can maximize mainframe capacity by micro-partitioning operating system images and workloads across tens, hundreds, or even thousands of logical partitions (LPAR). They can easily deploy new images or workloads when the need arises (and if there’s capacity to spare), or re-deploy existing workloads if there isn’t. And while IBM’s Virtualized Hosted Client Infrastructure isn’t quite that scalable, it will enable a previously undreamt-of degree of “desktop” capacity utilization. Best of all, the desktop hardware complement to this back-end processing horsepower amounts to little more than a high-resolution display terminal.

For these reasons, IBM says its new Virtualized Hosted Client Infrastructure has all of the advantages of the thin-client or network-computing models with few, if any, of the disadvantages. Big Blue’s virtual Windows or Linux operating system instances should be easier to manage, secure, and back up. Cycle for cycle, they should also be more efficient than competitive PC blade offerings from ClearCube (PC Blade) and Hewlett-Packard Co. (Consolidated Client Infrastructure). They support most typical end user amenities—printing, audio, and USB connectivity—and can also support multiple monitors.

The question, of course, is whether IBM’s virtual thin client will suffer the same fate—niche-dom—as that of its network computing forebears. “On paper, the relative values of network-enabled “thin client” desktop solutions make perfect sense. Such solutions provide all the applications and power needed for typical knowledge workers but significantly ease and improve IT performance and security by centralizing systems management,” notes Charles King, a principal with technology consultancy Pund-IT Research. “But while this concept offers provable merits, the vast majority of businesses have chosen to stick with the same old ‘employee in every cubicle and a PC on every desktop’ approach.”

Nevertheless, King suggests, there are a number of reasons why things might be different this time around. “[A] confluence of factors could be pressing the market toward a fundamental change. First and most importantly, with most companies taking an increasingly pragmatic approach to their IT investments, the cost-effectiveness of hosted desktop environments is likely to garner more favorable attention than in the past,” he writes, noting that companies are supporting increasing numbers of remote workers, too.

IBM’s virtual desktop offering could be an ideal solution for them. “At the same time, increasing access to Internet-based high-performance network solutions makes it much easier for remote workers to stay connected to their employers,” King concludes. “In other words, the IT infrastructure required to support blade-based desktop solutions is more readily and easily available than it has ever been.”

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.