Replacing traditional PCs with thin clients may be a great way for corporations to transfer the responsibility of dealing with computer problems from the user to the IT department, says an analyst.
Thin – or lean – clients form part of a client-server architecture in which computing activities are processed on a central server, and not the individual client unit.
“There are fewer moving parts on a [traditional] PC, so there is less of a possibility the machines will break down,” says Michelle Warren, senior analyst at Info-Tech Research Group in London, Ont.
And if something does go wrong, IT can deal with it on the server end with little trouble to the user.
Besides that, thin clients can help a corporation better manage its data because information is stored securely on the server and not on a user’s computer or laptop, says Warren.
In addition, users don’t need to be concerned about having the right files on their system, because information can be centrally accessed, she says. “A user can get to a file from any location by linking through the server.”
This access to data also increases user mobility in that an employee, with Internet access, can work from virtually any location.
The use of thin clients is becoming increasingly common, says Warren, especially in environments such as large businesses, as well as among organizations in the education, health care and finance sector. “There is definitely a market for it and that market is growing.”
For instance, St. Joseph’s Community Health Centre in Saint John, NB, employs thin clients to improve connectivity, thereby enhancing staff productivity.
The centre installed Sun Ray thin clients by Santa Clara, Calif.-based Sun Microsystems Inc.
Instead of giving a tablet PC to each user, St. Joseph’s now has a wired workstation with a thin client in each patient room, says Keith Wilson, a family physician at the centre.
Staff can log on to the system once a day using a smart card and continue working on a medical chart, for instance, from whichever point they left off, he says.
“We didn’t realize to what extent workflow was suspended until we installed thin clients,” he says. “In medicine, paper work buries you and for the first time I’m able to complete all of it, every day.”
Part of the idea behind using thin clients at the health centre was to migrate to a paperless environment. That way, staff would access information that resides on the server, says Wilson.
The fact that the institution is located in an older building meant that wireless connectivity could sometimes be faulty. Therefore, says Wilson, installing wired stations throughout the centre helped resolve the issue.
Besides easing the administrative load on medical staff, thin clients don’t require users to backup and apply patches, says Wilson. “IT applies one patch and it fixes everybody.”
Theft is also not that catastrophic an issue because no data is housed on the thin client, he says. “The great thing about these machines is that they’re essentially dumb. They don’t store any data and they have no memory.”
While thin clients are useful from a data-management perspective, they only fulfill that function if they are actually connected to the Internet, says Warren. “The computer is useless without being linked to the server. If the server goes down, employees can’t do their work.”
Furthermore, when activities are processed on a central server, it creates a dependency on both server and IT department, she adds.
Despite these drawbacks, there is a market for thin clients. However, Warren believes it won’t yet expand significantly partly because users actually like having data on their individual work stations.
At this time, thin clients have not made much of an impact in the small to medium-sized business (SMB) arena, she says, because it’s often easier and cheaper to purchase individual PCs than manage all the information on a server. Furthermore, SMBs seldom have in-house IT departments to support the architecture.
“However, it wouldn’t surprise me if we did begin to see some activity on the SMB side, as software-as-a-service (SaaS) picks up and we rely more on the Internet to store documents.”