Digital Transformation » Systems & Software » Laying it on thin

Faced with having to tighten their belts in this current fragile economy, while also having to invest in technology to remain competitive, businesses are now considering a thin-client environment as a serious option.

The concept of thin-client, server-based computing was first mooted in the mid-1990s when Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, among others, launched his Network Computer, a venture which has all but wasted away. But Ellison persisted with the concept to the point of moving Oracle to a thin-client, server-based computing environment. Other proponents, such as Citrix Systems and Wyse Technology, have fared far more successfully and are now the major players in this growing sector.

In essence, a thin-client, server-based computing environment is one in which the client device, such as a PC or personal digital assistant, accesses applications across a network that are stored on a central server.

The server carries out the necessary processing functions while the client acts as a terminal to display information to the user. The client does not contain a hard disk so it cannot hold data locally, nor does it have an operating system. Instead, it feeds off the server.

Citrix Systems’ Independent Computing Architecture (ICA) was first launched in 1989, making it the first incarnation of this type of environment.

ICA includes a server software component, a network protocol component and a client software component. To the user, the application appears to be running locally on the client, which responds to keystrokes and mouse clicks across the network, receiving screen updates, files and other information from the server.

Considering that ICA was conceived in 1989, the market has been slow to gather momentum. But since 2001, in the wake of the dotcom crash, thin clients have begun to take hold. According to research firm IDC, shipments to corporates will grow to 4.8 million units by 2004, from 929,000 in 2000.

Stephen Yeo, marketing director of thin-client hardware and software vendor Wyse Technology, says that since the spring of 2001, the company has seen tremendous growth, with market unit volumes growing threefold in that time and steady linear growth subsequently.

“The interesting thing is that it has happened in the middle of the worst IT recession since IT has been around,” he says.

A key reason for the current growth is that a thin-client environment results in significant cost savings associated with IT purchasing, support, maintenance and staffing. The current buoyancy, according to Mark Blowers, senior research analyst at Butler Group, “is a result of the fact that companies need to cut costs. There are some compelling benefits to using thin clients, notably from PC support costs.”

According to Yeo, total IT cost reductions can be achieved, from between 0% and 60%, taking into account all areas from which cuts can be derived, with a typical figure being between 25% and 30%.

Norman Green, financial director at Oracle UK, which three years ago moved to thin-client, server-based computing, claims the move saved the company significant sums of money. “We had lots of computers and applications scattered around the organisation. By consolidating them into one data centre, we managed to reduce our maintenance costs, our overall depreciation costs and the number of people needed to look after all this stuff.

It’s actually costing us less on an annual basis than it was four years ago, before we made the change. Oracle saved substantial amounts in its strategy to change its business model; about $1bn – tens of millions on centralising all of our IT to the data centres,” says Green.

Implementing software upgrades is much faster at Oracle now, says Green.

Globally, it used to take the company well over a year to upgrade its financial systems at each site within the organisation. Since moving to a thin-client environment, Oracle has upgraded all its global financial systems during the course of just one weekend, he says.

Performing system checks and software upgrades is easier to manage in a thin-client environment than it is on PCs, Blowers says, pointing out that the current licensing issues surrounding Microsoft Windows are adding to cost concerns. Moving to a centralised strategy also means that upgrades can be carried out easily by inserting one CD-Rom into the central server, which distributes the software to all the client devices rather than expensive IT support personnel doing so manually on each PC within an organisation.

A thin-client, server-based computing environment can also increase operational flexibility. James McNab, Citrix EMEA senior director of marketing, alliances and business development, echoes that view saying the technology enables staff to access corporate resources from anywhere, which leads to increased productivity.

Hardware prices have also come down to #199 per client, says Yeo, making them as affordable as a mobile phone. They last twice as long, and better licensing deals can be negotiated with suppliers because, instead of buying on a named user basis and buying 10,000 PC user licenses, with thin clients companies can demonstrate that at any one time they have 1,500 concurrent users, thereby obtaining better rates.

A further driver spurring on thin-client adoption is the increased need to take security and business-continuity precautions to minimise the risk of disruption from hackers and terrorists. Firewalls surrounding the central servers act as an effective barrier to protect thin clients from virus infections because they do not hold any software or data locally.

In the event of theft, a thin-client laptop device remains secure. “One of the problems we used to have was people downloading lots of sensitive information on to their laptops and disappearing off with them,” says Green. “Then they would lose their laptops and all the information with them. Now, there is nothing to stop our people downloading some data, but there is no need to do it because they can access its latest version by going online.”

But even though corporates recognise the benefits of a thin-client environment, users often dislike the idea of giving up their PCs. Blowers believes vendors have underestimated the level of user resistance to thin clients.Yeo agrees and says this is currently the biggest barrier to its widespread adoption. He attributes the fondness for PCs partly to habitual corporate purchasing policies and partly to user mentality. Many PC users are tied to their computer emotionally. They view it as theirs. It’s a status symbol. As a result, some customers are using special tactics to encourage users to accept the technology. For instance, the HR policy in place at many of Wyse’s customers is that new employees will always be given a terminal, unless they can justify the need for a PC.

Green says Oracle did not experience user resistance, largely because it is an IT manufacturer and staff are comfortable adopting the latest technology. He acknowledges, though, that it is a problem for many other companies because users feel that losing their PC means losing control of their work. This is a misconception, explains Green, because the centralised system ensures that the latest version of information is always available.

Nevertheless, this technology may not be suitable for all users, particularly those whose work is carried out on applications that are processing and graphics-intensive. These tend to be better suited to a traditional PC, because they may introduce network bottlenecks if run over a communications link.

McNab points out that Jaguar Cars’ UK design team uses Citrix on some of its Windows-based CAD terminals.

Yeo says that top-end thin clients now have a large screen and 3-D acceleration chips onboard, but thin clients are not very good when the local CPU is controlling a graphics screen, as in a game.

The cost and speed of communications are no longer an issue. While costs have come down, speeds have gone up and technologies such as broadband are becoming more widely available. “Obviously, if all your applications are on your client, you can work offline. But once you have a thin client, you have to access the central system to download the application you want to use. If you’re on a dialup link or an expensive hotel link that pushes the costs up, you soon eat into the savings you have made on other things. However, that is changing. We’re finally getting broadband access, wireless LANs and fixed costs, so you can control those costs,” comments Blowers.

Contrary to popular belief, when moving to thin-client, server-based computing, companies do not have to forsake the old fat-client infrastructure. In fact, the great benefit of a Citrix implementation, according to McNab, is that it “you don’t need to throw away any of your existing infrastructure.”

While new servers may be needed to host applications, a thin client is not a prerequisite to access them. Any client can act as a thin client, whether it’s an up-to-date PC, an old PC or a thin-client device. A phased approach to the implementation of thin clients is generally taken, replacing old PCs when they finally come to the end of their useful life. For an interim period, companies can continue to deploy applications locally, with others running on Citrix, all interacting seamlessly.

In April 2003, Wyse is introducing new software that will lock a PC down and convert it into a type of terminal which is centrally managed. This will allow companies to extend the life of their assets, giving them many of the management and cost-reduction benefits of thin clients, while not having to throw out existing equipment, therefore nursing along the migration strategy.