Thin Client Computing

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What is Thin Client computing?

There has been a lot of talk recently on a new form of computing. It is called thin client computing and it represents a major shift in the way IT managers can organise the desktop computers they manage.

In the past an IT manager would typically purchase personal computers - usually PCs but sometimes Apple Macintoshes - to provide end-users with the software they need to get on with their jobs. Such software includes office productivity products like the Microsoft Word word-processor, Excel spreadsheet and shared office diaries; together with access to Internet, Intranet and host-based applications residing on large central IT systems.

With thin client computing, an IT manager can continue providing end-users with access to such applications. But rather than deploy a personal computer on every desktop, the IT manager deploys a thin client device.

Why is it different to client server computing?

The thin client is an alternative to the personal computer. It is thin, both physically and in the way it is configured. Basically, the thin client terminal is simply a device for giving end users access to applications running on powerful servers elsewhere in the organisation.

Not much bigger than an external modem, a thin client device provides keyboard, mouse and network connections, a parallel printer port and access to the usual gamut of office productivity and business application software.

Total cost of ownership

The thin client simply provides a way to display the application and offer the user a way to interact using a keyboard and a mouse. Because it only handles user interaction, it is described as a thin client. The alternative, the thick client is basically the ubiquitous PC. Client server computing uses powerful PCs to localise computational work from a central server.

However, IT managers have found thick clients, or PCs, expensive to purchase, run and maintain. One reason is because, being personal, the PC can give end users far too much freedom to disrupt delicate configurations. The thin client computing model provides little opportunity for users to re-configure applications unless they have administrative status. In principle, centralised deployment of application and maintenance makes significant cost savings.

The phrase that everyone is working with these days is 'total cost of ownership' (TCO), which really boils down to getting the most out of your technology investment with the least amount of unnecessary effort.

Zona research, quoted on the Boundless web site, calculates a 54%-57% saving by using the thin client/server model over a comparable number of networked PCs. The savings were projected over a 5 year period by comparing the costs of setting up and maintaining 15 PCs and 15 Windows terminal solutions using Independent Computer Architecture clients and a Winframe server. Leading research firms are seeing the impact that thin client/server computing can make in expanded enterprises. Gartner Group, Intelliquest, IDC and Zona research are all conducting comprehensive studies on the market potential and user and enterprise benefits of the thin client/server computing solution.

PC & Monitor Thin Client & Monitor
assumes PC with no power down management assumes unit does not use power down management
3 year cost saving of £31,000
71% Saving
Electricity Business Rate 6.61p per unit (1 unit = 1000watts per hour)
Thin Client Benefits - Energy Savings

3 year onsite warranty (Typical PC MTBF 25,000 Hrs)
UNIT COST : £120
100 UNIT COST : £12,000
3 year onsite warranty (Typical TC MTBF 170,000 Hrs)
100 UNIT COST : £6,100
£5,900 Saving in the first year
Thin Client Benefits - Service & Maintenance

Typical Install Times
Typical Install Times
UNPACK & LOAD O/S : 30mins
TOTAL TIME = 1 HOUR 15mins
100 UNITS = 15 Man Days
TOTAL TIME = 15mins
100 UNITS = 3 Man Days
Over 12 man days of deployment time saved
Thin Client Benefits - Installation Times

Source: Wyse EMEA© May 1998

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What are the benefits of Thin Client on the End-Users desktop?

Unlike the PC an IT manager would normally buy for end-user computing, the thin client computing device is not a high-powered, general purpose computer. It may be configured with as little as 8Mb or 16Mb of memory. There is usually no need for a hard disk but one can be connected, either via the integral PC card connector on the thin client device or externally through the parallel printer port interface. Even the processor that powers the thin client device is different. It really does not have to be 'Intel Inside.' In fact, thin client computers can be powered by any number of microprocessors ranging from the StrongArm chip and the PowerPC to low-powered Intel processors.

Because there are very few components in a thin client computer, there will be less technical problems than the more complex personal computer. Often it has no hard disk which means end-users cannot store any files locally. This has a huge benefit for IT managers and users. When a thin client computer eventually fails, it can simply be thrown away - limiting the time IT staff need to spend performing ad hoc fixes to users' computers.

For the end user, this means there is a genuine opportunity to help themselves. There is nothing more frustrating for a user than putting a call to the IT help desk and waiting hours before someone is available. Since thin client computers can effectively be plugged in and are ready to go - without any need for manual configuration - it is possible for the end user to replace the broken computer with a new one without any intervention from IT.

Key usage factor/unmet need Thin Client PC's
(User Benefit) (Centralised Approach) (Distributed Approach)
Low total cost of ownership Yes  
Rapid Application Deployment Yes  
Support for windows applications and graphics Yes Yes
Easy for end-users to use Yes Yes
High security Yes  
Low initial cost Yes  
Support for legacy applications Yes  
Support for java applications Yes Yes

Source: Citrix © 1998

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Why mainframe style centralised management works

The reason why managers really like the idea of thin client computing is because it moves back to the tried and tested mainframe model of computing.Thin client computers are effectively the successor to the green-screen terminal which has been the predominant way users have accessed centralised computing.

Centralised computing, which involves putting applications and the computers they run on in one place, can help cut-down IT management headaches which arise when IT systems are distributed throughout a company. Having the application in one place means when the IT department needs to update software, it only needs to apply the update once, on the server. Users then have immediate access to the new code.

Breakthroughs in operating system software, such as Microsoft¨ Windows NT Terminal Server Edition and Citrix MetaFrame, have made it possible for IT managers to give users access to Windows and Windows applications. These products, known as multi-user NT systems, run Windows NT on large PC servers.

The approach is similar to the way IT departments run Unix and mainframe systems. But unlike Unix and mainframes, IT managers deploy familiar PC technology. It is easier to find staff with PC skills than mainframe or Unix skills.

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How the Internets popularity has changed End-Users expectation of IT

One area of thin client computing which is making significant in-roads into mainstream IT is the Internet. The Net has given users a new way of using computers. It is clearly a more basic user interface to Windows - but the Internet has proved that sometimes it is the simplest ideas that work the best.

Millions upon millions of users have accepted the Internet as a way of accessing information. What makes the Internet even more compelling is users do not need expensive hardware to access the Internet. All that is needed is a basic computing device - a thin client.

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How Java and multi-user versions of NT offer End-Users PC like GUIs

To extend the Internet user interface, Internet applications can be written. The Java programming language provides a way mechanism to distribute Internet applications. Software developed in Java has the potential to run on any computing device, thin client computers included. What is more, a Java application can have a Windows-like user interface. An alternative technology, dynamic HTML, has similar potential. These technologies are now being integrated into thin client computers.

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