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IT STRATEGY REVIEW – Fat clients? On yer bike

IT managers are, quite naturally, drawn to the latest ‘whizzo’ technology and, also quite naturally, finance directors are put off by its cost. But capital costs are only part of the equation.

One of the biggest debates currently occupying the brains behind the technology industry is the battle between the PC and the NC – the personal computer and the network computer, also known as fat clients and thin clients respectively. Much of the debate revolves around the degree of control you give your IT manager and how this might reduce the overall running costs of the desktop computing devices in your organisation.

We are all familiar with fat clients – PCs. Most of the ones in your organisation will be linked to a server, a beefed-up PC used as a central repository for files, enabling everyone to save their work in a place where others can access it, too.

Your PC will have a hard disk where you save data and where you install software applications such as Microsoft Office or Lotus Smart Suite. It will have random access memory (RAM) which allows the PC to process the data you are working on and it will have a floppy drive which enables you to save information on a floppy disk and take it away with you. This last point creates some interesting security headaches: do you really want your workforce to be able to access sensitive information which they can copy to a floppy disk and take home with them?

The more applications you need to use the bigger your PC’s hard disk will need to be and the more RAM you will need to run the application properly – it is not hard to see where the name fat client comes from. A PC that was made two years ago or so will not be able to cope with the demands for more power that new software puts on it. To keep on top of such demands, PCs will need new hard disks and more RAM on a regular basis. In fact, latest research from leasing company Livingston Rentals indicates that a growing number of companies are replacing PCs en masse every 18 months rather than upgrading them.

The need to make more efficient use of technology by employing the latest software offerings demands that more money be spent on making sure the hardware on the desktop can cope with it. It is a seemingly unbreakable vicious circle.

The idea behind the network computer – NC – is a fairly simple one. The typical desktop PC in use today is more powerful than the computer used by NASA to put Neil Armstrong on the moon. Do you really need that sort of computing power on everyone’s desk? Does it get used efficiently? Will you ever really see a return on your investment? Possibly not.

What if you were to take the weakest links in the chain and find a better way of working with them, asks John De Santis, European vice president of Network Computer Devices (NCD). “You have to make people realise that the PC is far less reliable than the network it is attached to,” he says. “Then you take all the complexity out of the machines on people’s desks and hand the control back where it belongs – the IT department.”

The idea of a single point of complexity and control with a large number of simple devices attached to it is not a new one. The telephone is a prime example – voice-mail, call diverting, remote pick-up and so on are controlled via the switchboard, not the handset.

If you put the software on your central server and allow users to access it as and when they need to, you now only need to worry about updating one machine in the office instead of all of them. If you also get rid of the floppy drive on every desk you stop unauthorised copying of data and remove the risk of anyone infecting the whole system by inserting a disk that has a virus. The result is a thin client – a lean, mean network computing machine – all of which is good news and saves the company a small fortune. If only it were that simple.

In January, PC manufacturer Compaq published research findings from the Benchmark Research Group which suggest the NC is viewed with more than a degree of scepticism by many IT managers. According to the Compaq-sponsored figures, 88% of IT managers said their users (the people who have the machines on their desks) would balk at the idea of having their familiar Microsoft Windows environment taken away from them. “You can’t dismiss this emotional argument,” says NCD’s De Santis. “But you have to be insensitive.

It can be easy to be swayed by emotional viewpoints if you don’t understand the technology, but everyone understands phones and this has to be seen the same way – just another productivity tool.”

Of the respondents, 87% said they could achieve significant cost savings simply by managing the existing networked PCs better. The lack of applications for the NC is another disadvantage thrown up by the research document.

NCs are, by and large, geared to a programming language called Java which is widely used on the Internet. However, the pro-PC side of the debate points to the tiny number of Java-based commercial applications available and compares them scornfully to the 10,000 or so applications that run on Windows.

Of course, Compaq is the leading PC manufacturer and has a vested interest in us not turning our backs on their offerings – which is why the company has brought out a thin client of its own, called the NetPC. In a nutshell, this is a Windows-based PC with no floppy drive – so it can’t be tinkered with. It is connected up to a network, in the same way as the NC, the application processing is done on the NetPC rather than on a central server.

James Griffiths, Compaq desktop product manager, sees the NC as product without a home. “The take-up of the NC is being held back by the lack of Java applications. Java is fine as a language or a piece of technology but not as the basis of applications. Therefore, most NCs are being used to access Windows applications and not Java ones, which begs the question: why adopt a new hardware device when you could just as easily stay with something everyone’s familiar with?”

Why, indeed? Sure, you and your senior management colleagues use a PC, running Windows and you probably need it to handle the work you have to do. But think about the staff of a call centre, maybe telephone banking, or car insurance that you buy over the phone. In these cases you don’t need the latest high-performance PC to get the job done, just access to the right information (account details and so on) on the screen at the right time.

It is at this level that choosing a thin client device makes sense. Ask yourself some questions. Does your organisation have large numbers of people performing routine tasks on a computer? Does the information they work on need to be safe, secure and managed from a central point? Are they using a small number of applications? If the answers are yes to the above then maybe thin clients would fit into your organisation. But if your workforce needs flexibility in its use of computing – lots of different applications – or needs to be able to go on the road with their computer then perhaps you should stick with your PCs.

Max Currie is the head of information services at insurance company General Accident. Currie is in the process of installing 4,000 NCs throughout the network of GA offices in the UK. The new machines are needed because the existing terminals cannot cope with the upgraded processing system which is also being installed. Currie explains that PCs would have been too powerful for what was needed. “We looked at using PCs but they need too much maintenance,” he adds. “Most of the work requires the PC working like a (dumb) terminal; the NC was ideal – it comes straight out of the box and acts just like a sophisticated terminal.”

For GA there was no big debate about wanting to reduce costs by investing in NCs: the NC fitted the description of what was needed. Although, as Currie points out: “We can avoid having a team of engineers out in vans patrolling the country just to keep 4,000 PCs going.”

What about the lack of applications for the NC? Again, Currie is unimpressed: the NCs in use by GA are connected to a central mainframe they do not rely on Java. “We’re looking into using Java to develop a helpline package – but we see it as simply a development language and as we’re not a big development house we’ll only be using it for a couple of applications.”

Currie thinks GA will eventually cut back on the number of PCs it uses, although he does not see the NC as a PC replacement and he admits that he sees no obvious role for the NetPC. He views the entire debate as merely a diversion. “The arguments tend to be presented in very black-and-white terms,” he says. “But you shouldn’t be motivated by the choice of hardware; it’s all down to the applications you’re planning to use.”

At the end of the day, you can find arguments for and against PCs, NCs and NetPCs without too much trouble. It may be that your IT department can identify a need for thin clients somewhere in your organisation. If that is the case you should concern yourself with what difference they will make to the day-to-day business. Naturally, the cost of buying and installing new technology has to be looked at carefully but it should not be looked at in isolation – will you be able to find cost savings in other areas?

If your IT manager can sit at his desk and monitor a network of hundreds of thin clients instead of having to roam the building, he should now be able to get on with other work that he rarely has time for. Perhaps such an outcome will mean he will have the time to look into what else the organisation might benefit from. In which case, how long do you think it will be before he comes running to tell you about the latest piece of “whizzo” technology that he must go out and buy – the whole industry’s buzzing with talk of it, you know …

Sean Flemming is senior reporter on Computing.

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