The skinny on thin-client computing

When Robert Transport decided that maintaining its stock of PCs scattered about locations in Ontario and Quebec was becoming too costly, moving to a more centralized IT infrastructure was a no-brainer.

The shipping company purchased software from Citrix Systems Inc. Citrix’s equipment lets companies put applications on servers, which push the app info to “thin client” computers, be they stripped-down PCs or terminals from the likes of Wyse Technology Inc.

According to Isabelle Robert, Robert’s IT director, the Citrix environment is easier to maintain. Her firm concerns itself primarily with server upkeep these days, and worries less about end-user PC caretaking.

“If we have new users coming in, or we have a thin client that doesn’t work anymore, we just send a new one,” Robert said. “We don’t have much to do before sending that box out. We’ve reduced the time, cost and effort to support the PCs.

“And the thin clients last a long time. And they can’t be contaminated with a virus. If our servers are well-protected, so are our users.” But “fat” PCs remain the incumbent end-user device of choice for many companies. Despite its working well for Robert, it seems Citrix-like server-based computing isn’t for everyone.

“Many employees don’t like to feel they’re being downgraded in terms of computer power,” said Alan Freedman, IDC Canada Ltd.’s infrastructure research manager, describing a common hurdle for companies considering thin-client installations. “And if you have tasks that are quite varied, if you’re using different applications all the time, it’s not ideal.” “One of the biggest hindrances would be network capacity,” Freedman continued.

Server-based systems require a strong connection between the client computer and the server if the app-as-service model is going to take off. “If you don’t have a reliable network, it’s not going to be effective.”

But according to Robert, network capacity is becoming less of a concern. Such was the case at her firm. “The cost of bandwidth has been going down. We’ve been moving more data, but the bandwidth has increased, so we can do this.”

Freedman said now might be the server-based architecture’s time to shine. “Companies are looking at restructuring their networks because of things like wireless and voice over IP that require a stronger infrastructure. It may be easier for those companies (Citrix and other server-based systems vendors) to sell their value propositions going forward because they won’t involve an extensive network upgrade.”

Brian Madden is a Washington, D.C.-based independent analyst and author of books about thin-client computing. He said the mix of apps at a company determines whether or not a firm would choose a Citrix-style environment. “The one thing stopping people from going to thin-client architectures is the applications. Maybe their applications are deployed by browser and they don’t see an advantage in putting them on a Citrix server. Maybe their applications are highly decentralized or architected in such a way that it would be a pain for them to migrate to a Citrix server. I see the decision being made on an application-by-application basis.”

He also sees changes afoot for the fat-versus-thin argument. In the future, Terminal Services-based platforms like Citrix might be able to take into account the capabilities of the client computer. The server would recognize the end-user machine as a powerful workstation, send the raw app data and let the user’s box take care of the processing. Likewise, the server would understand a thin-client’s capabilities and offer a pre-packaged user experience.

“When you look at the world of applications like that, the whole fat-versus-thin conversation is going away,” Madden said.

Robert said her company is sold on the thin-client experience. The firm no longer needs to retain outside IT experts for PC maintenance in locations beyond the Boucherville, Que. headquarters. (The company used to have about 400 PCs at its locations throughout central Canada.) And software upgrades no longer depend on the hardware configurations of the PCs, so new apps don’t spell new computers, a situation that Robert experienced during a previous software refresh.

“I would recommend it,” she said, adding that the company is eyeing portal software as a next step.

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Related links:

Microsoft making Windows XP thin clients

Scotiabank computing migration shows thin is in

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