Computing on thin ice

Ah, who can forget 1997? The days when the IT industry basked in exuberance. Managers bought, and then bought some more while vendors, more than happy to oblige, watched stock prices zoom. Nowhere was a frown to be seen.

Looking back with a more sober eye at some of the predictions made at that time reveals a Roaring ’20s mindset. Sure, people were starting to get seriously concerned about the looming Y2K problem, but for most experts the path of IT was lined with bread and roses. Some predictions were no-brainers, such as the continuing dominance of Windows as the primary desktop operating system. Others were a bit more iffy: by this time e-commerce was to have really taken off, and most Canadians were supposed to be using the Web as a primary means of shopping. Still others were just plain wacky (Has the combined Oracle/Netscape put the run on those folks from Redmond, Wash., yet?).

A large number of experts at the time – as well as industry heavyweights Sun Microsystems Inc. and Oracle Corp. – also predicted big things for thin client computing. IT managers, the thinking went, were getting tired of the runaway management costs associated with fleets of Wintel PCs. As a result, the enterprise would slowly drift toward a combination of dumb-terminal/network computers/Net PCs on the desktop connected to servers that would bear the brunt of the application work.

The pros of thin client computing were alluring: under such a regime, the hardware wouldn’t have to be constantly upgraded, IT staff wouldn’t have to waste hundreds of person-hours running from desktop to desktop to find out what latest user download is causing problems. Using products such as Citrix System Inc.’s MetaFrame, Microsoft Corp.’s Terminal Services and Tarantella Inc.’s Tarantella Enterprise, users would also be able to connect with a host of Windows-based applications faster and easier.

Sounded good then, sounds good now. But the thin client desktop model never made a serious dent in mainstream computing, and the traditional PC remains the dominant office tool.

“It went the way of the dodo bird,” said Heather Simmons of Dell Canada in Markham, Ont. “I haven’t heard it mentioned in a year and a half.”

Michelle Warren, a PC industry analyst with Evans Research Corp. in Toronto, said at least from the hardware side, the thin client device is today a scarce breed. “You still see them, but more as a niche product,” she said. Evans’ figures show that of the 1.87 million commercial desktops expected to ship this year, less than five per cent are classified as thin clients.

A Hard Sell

Experts point to several reasons why thin client computing never took off in a way some thought it would. The first is the business case. While vendors made a convincing argument, and thin clients represented a solution to a problem that many IT managers genuinely grapple with, few could convince them to make the sweeping infrastructure changes such a deployment requires.

“Who was predicting that it was going to be a success? It wasn’t customers,” said Gerry Skipwith, vice-president at Compugen Technical Services in Toronto. “They never really helped customers get their head around the business case.”

Similar to the current dilemma around voice over IP technology, outside of a departmental rollout, thin clients require a substantial up-front investment (albeit one that’s largely one-time) in new technology. And since the cost savings are soft and usually accrued over the long-term, thin client proponents often find themselves trying to convince companies to fix something that, in their view, isn’t broken.

And the industry has learned a lot in five years. Although the TCO figures attached to PC lifecycle management used to be cause for serious concern, experts generally agree that IT departments have come a long way. Best practices and management software proliferates, helping managers keep the cost of PC support lower than it once was. Also, organizations aren’t refreshing their PC lines as often as they used to, and those that do have leasing and support options that weren’t always readily available. Concerns over upgrade costs have been reduced.

Next is the human factor. Even in an age when CIOs are under extra pressure to weed out unnecessary costs, the PC remains a sacred cow. If users are reluctant to ditch the PC, with its ability to download and amuse as well as get the job done, IT departments are equally reluctant to impose that change.

For David Welch, chief technology officer of Netfusion Business Solutions Inc., a Richmond Hill, Ont.-based Sun reseller and integrator that specializes in Sun’s line of Sun Ray desktop appliances, that battle over mindshare has been particularly frustrating. “You’re dealing with human emotions at that point, rather than what’s best,” he said. Although fat clients make sense at home, “when you get to work, that’s a different environment. Its main concern should be that the employees can do their job effectively.”

Welch is especially critical of IT staff, who he said often dismiss Sun Rays solely on their attachment to the PC, which he says is one of the few areas of corporate computing that has yet to evolve. “‘I’ve always done it that way, and I’ll continue to do it that way.’ It’s that kind of mentality,” he said.

Another and somewhat less important factor is performance. Thin client computing assumes that the network is on all the time, so users can’t work offline. Critics point to it lack of support for multimedia and printing functions as another drawback. And, of course, under the model, server performance is critical.

Mark Olson, an associate at Calgary-based consultants Gilmore & Associates, said a big drawback can be found in the nature of Windows itself. “In Windows environments, there’s a direct relationship between complexity and failure,” he said. “It was never designed for that remote, thin client type of environment. So anything that’s ever done in that regard is a retrofit.” He said the Unix-based X Windows approach is more successful, but that the model never caught on because of a lack of back end server capability.


However, thin client technology is hardly disappearing, according to its supporters. Today’s tough economic environment coupled with the rising talk of software delivered as a service seems to provide fertile ground for the renewed growth of thin clients. And in corporate departments or smaller firms where users largely need to access no more than one or two office productivity applications, experts say going thin may make sense.

“If you’re using best practices in your fat client environment you might not have that much savings for a thin client deployment. But usually our clients are not doing that, and therefore they’re seeing pretty good savings,” said Peter Lowber, analyst at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc.

Where it makes particular sense is in environments where users need access to no more than one or two common office productivity applications – so customer call centres, for example, tend to look seriously at thin client technology. Organizations that place a high priority on security and privacy, such as hospitals, are also attracted to thin clients, which by their nature ensure that information can’t be stolen from the desktop. It’s also making inroads in smaller firms where money for IT support is non-existent, and it’s easier to swap out one infrastructure for another.

Ecopia BioSciences Inc., a medical research firm in St. Laurent, Que., which specializes in finding new chemical entities for the biopharmaceutical industry, is an example of the latter. Of its 45 desktop clients, 28 are Sun Rays, used mostly by research and development staff. Tim Chipman, Ecopia’s systems administrator, dismissed concerns over network and server performance, saying both have been a non-factor in his environment. As the company prepared to aggressively add staff, he said the point “is looming in the near future” where all staff use Sun Rays.

“With these clients you can walk over to the desktop, pop your smart card in and say, ‘here’s what I’m working on’…You can jump from session to session. It’s very fast,” Chipman said.

Welch said Netfusion is launching an aggressive marketing campaign to push Sun Rays, and he expects that area of the business to grow over the next year.

Last year, Framingham, Mass.-based IDC released a study that predicted thin client shipments would grow to 10 times their 2000 volume to 8.7 million, calling it a good time for thin client vendors to “get in the door.”

Thin clients are also showing up in “hybrid” settings, where PCs hosting fat apps also access server-based apps, and in “slim” clients, where clients run a software’s Java-based presentation logic, and the server runs the business logic.

But Lowber said despite a number of clients that call and ask about broad-based strategies around products such as Citrix’s MetaFrame, it will remain a niche area of computing. “I wouldn’t encourage our clients to do that across the board.”