Thin Client Computing

Thin client is a growing technology because it promises to bring some sanity back to the cost of computing.

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As the horrifying support costs of Windows based Client Server computing became more and more evident, many companies wished to return to the economies of the "expensive" centralized computing environment they had abandoned. Problem: what they had abandoned really was obsolete, and there really are advantages to new environments. What to do?

The concept of deploying Java programs to simple network attached computers, (NCs) running software from a central server was developed. Java would provide a modern, colorful, windowing user interface at the workstations, and the workstations would have their own computing power for good performance, but all the software would live back on the central server where it could be easily and inexpensively maintained. The concept of modern Thin Client Computing had been born.

Of course this wasn't really all that new a concept. X Windows has long provided a graphic interface for networked clients in the Unix environment. With the rise of Linux and modern X based desktop environments like KDE, this approach becomes highly viable and very economical, with or without Java.

Microsoft, seeing a serious threat to Windows, moved against the thin client immediately. Their first "solution" was the "Network PC", basically a Windows PC in a sealed box. The major computer manufacturers immediately announced support for NetPC - then never produced any products because it was a totally stupid concept. The NetPC retained all the costs of Windows computing while removing some of the benefits. It was dead within 6 months, but served Microsoft well by confusing the issue.

Microsoft's second response was a blatant act of extortion against Citrix to get their Windows Terminal technology, which Microsoft reissued as Windows Terminal Services. Citrix is still in the picture, though because they can actually get WTS to work, and because they support non- Windows clients. Wyse, and others, makes a line of low maintenance "Windows Terminals" which can be used with WTS instead of full PC clients.

WTS is now Microsoft's "thin client" strategy (until they can get .NET to work), though it would more accurately be called "fat server". it is quite expensive and very server intensive. A powerful server can support no more than 5 to 10 simultaneous users in most applications, where the same server might support ten or twenty times that many NC/Java clients

WTS is also rather tricky to set up because Windows software was not designed for a multiuser environment, but once it is running it does reduce administration costs.

One popular use of Windows Terminal Server is running, say a centralized Windows accounting program, and using WTS to serve up decent performance at remote offices. This avoids having to start over with a new Unix based or Client Server accounting program when a business opens new branches.

A far more comprehensive solution to this problem is Tarantella which can support Windows NT, Unix, Linux and S390 Mainframe servers and serve their applications to any client that supports a Java enabled Web browser. Today, that includs just about everything from PCs to cell phones. Tarantella can also cost less than WTS/Citrix.

Citrix, in their planned migration away from Windows has come out with a Unix product similar to Tarantella, but it is not yet as comprehensive.

Meanwhile, major corporations continue to quietly deploy Java based solutions, sometimes with NCs (Network Computers), and sometimes with PCs acting as NCs. Some who are running WTS/Citrix consider it just a stop-gap on the way to a system using "real" thin clients.

Java and Web based thin client computing is still mostly custom development in larger companies, but as it sinks in, it will be migrating to smaller businesses. Tarantella, however, is ready to go now, for companies of all sizes, and Linux / X / KDE environments can also be used by small businesses now.

©:Andrew Grygus - Automation Access - www.aaxnet.com - aax@aaxnet.com
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