Thin clients win favour as PC alternative

Every year, Dave Raspallo, CIO at Textron Financial Corp., found himself having to replace a third of his 1,200 PCs. But he grew tired of the cost of the annual ritual and he began swapping out his desktops for thin clients. Forty per cent of those PCs are now gone, and many more will disappear next year.

He plans to eliminate completely the use of any desktops. And, he’s giving road warriors handhelds and tablet PCs in lieu of laptops. He estimates that total savings will be around 25 per cent annually for his Providence, R.I.-based company, most of it in reduced support costs.

Jack Klosterman, CIO at Volkswagen Credit, is also determined. Last November, the Libertyville, Ill.-based financing arm of Volkswagen AG began a pilot project using PC blades and thin-client appliances from Hewlett-Packard, with plans to roll out 200 PC blades the following quarter and ‘virtualize’ the desktop.

Employees access applications via a solid-state desktop appliance. They can log into a PC blade from any appliance, so they’re not tied to a specific desktop. With at least 10 per cent of the employees out of the office at any given time, VW Credit can reduce the number of CPUs and, consequently, its Microsoft licensing fees. “It seems to have realistic potential for this,” said Klosterman.

The fact that the appliances can last twice as long as PCs while requiring less support also yields cost savings. John Stingl, chief technical officer at Russell Investment Group in Tacoma, Wash., is moving his 1,000 users to a Citrix Systems, Inc. environment to cut costs. He’s using thin clients from HP’s Evo line that run local versions of Windows XP along with a browser and multimedia players. Applications are delivered via a central server.

IT managers say a thin-client move works only if the application environment is standardized. In Russell Investment’s case, that has meant reducing its applications from 1,100 to 350. Stingl said he expects to save US$9 million over five years. “The pressure to get more for your dollar…is going to dictate that more folks take a look at this environment,” he said.

Linux-based desktops that access Web-enabled applications are getting the attention of many IT managers as well. But it may be unrealistic to predict that the Microsoft-loaded PC is facing an imminent threat from either thin clients or Linux. “There is a long history of people talking about the thin client taking over the world,” said Bob O’Donnell, an analyst at Framingham, Mass.-based IDC. O’Donnell said he inherited some “outrageous forecasts” from earlier analysts, who predicted huge advances in thin-client adoption.

In 1999, for instance, IDC forecasted 9.5 million thin-client shipments in 2004, O’Donnell said. Today that estimate is 1.8 million, only about one per cent of total PC shipments. Still, the thin-client growth rate is over 20 per cent annually.

“The challenge has been to raise the awareness level,” O’Donnell said.

But Steven VanRoekel, a director of platform strategy at Microsoft, countered that the Windows-based desktop remains a healthy, low-cost approach. He also cited failed thin-desktop movements of the past. “We’ve seen this trend, and the waves rise and fall,” he said.

Microsoft does offer thin-client options through Web-based applications and its Terminal Server, which is part of the Windows server operating system. The company also partners with Citrix to help companies deliver applications to remote users.

But VanRoekel said the company continues to believe that a “rich, high-fidelity client” is the best course for most users. Microsoft is working to make the client deployment process easier with the release of its next Windows operating system, code-named Longhorn. A new feature, called SuperFetch, will help applications launch more quickly, and ClickOne installation will allow users to install an application by simply clicking an icon or link.

That said, users are unquestionably buying thin clients. Indeed, some vendors offering desktop PC alternatives have fared much better than other technology companies over the past couple of years. Vendors such as Neoware Systems, Inc. of King of Prussia, Penn., and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Citrix say a key driver of sales is security, as well as regulatory requirements such as Sarbanes-Oxley. And HP claims that the blades have the capability to replace half of all desktops in medium-size and large companies.

The Linux desktop is a different story. In the U.S. market, vendors see more opportunities for Linux in call centres, point-of-sale systems and technical workstations than for replacing so-called knowledge worker systems used for office productivity and business functions. But that’s not to say IT shops aren’t examining Linux alternatives on the desktop.

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