Thin Clients Making Advances in a PC World
August 10, 2004 Dan Burger
It’s a PC world. That’s PC as in personal computer, not politically correct, although it is arguable that owning a PC, whether at home or at work, is so ingrained in our minds that is has a certain political correctness about it. Take away our PCs and you’ve taken away our productivity. Well, that’s assuming you are productive with your PC. Or is it really just a case of feeling secure with your PC?
We have reason to feel both productive and secure with our PCs. Dell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and Microsoft have poured billions of dollars into research and development in order to improve the functionality of the PC. They believe that everyone needs this functionality. They also believe that if they fall behind in the functionality race, the competition will blow them out of the water. But sometimes the new functionality is just more than people can possibly use. It’s like building a Ferrari to be driven to work in rush hour traffic. Not to mention how often that Ferrari needs to go into the shop and who is going to work on it.
Still, everyone wants the Ferrari. That’s fine, if you can afford one and you have someone to keep it running like a Ferrari should run. But if you have a company with 1,000 workers, it’s likely that you won’t want to buy each a Ferrari and pay for its maintenance. When market researcher IDC looked at this situation it came to the conclusion that only half of the employees who needed workstations actually needed PCs. In other words, workstation does not mean PC.
So should we believe that? Apparently not. We live and work in the midst of PC proliferation.
In fact, it’s likely that many people, especially those outside the IT department, are not aware of alternatives to the PC. That’s how pervasive the PC culture is.
In the OS/400 universe, many are familiar with the traditional non-PC workstation. It’s called the “dumb terminal.” Ha! What a great name. How would you like to be the salesperson with the job of selling a product called the dumb terminal? Dumb terminals are green-screen workstations. They present text-only information and were designed for data entry. No GUI. No Internet access. In fact, no access to anything other than the 5250 data stream of the AS/400 or iSeries.
The key to these workstations is that they are highly efficient. Flip the coin over, though, and you see limitations for workers who need access to more than 5250 emulation.
That brings us to the evolution of the dumb terminal. The dumb terminal is the most basic AS/400 (and mainframe) workstation. Five years ago you could make a case that it was all one needed in the real world. Three years ago, it was still the most common workstation in AS/400 shops. There is still plenty of them being used today, and they will continue to be used in the future. And lots of companies with 5250 emulation terminals have an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality.
However, the evolution of the thin client has brought dramatic increases in its functionality during the past three years. Not coincidentally, that timeframe corresponds with the advent of workers beginning to access information not only from the AS/400’s RPG applications but also from Windows- and Web-based applications. Along with that came a need for workers to expand beyond their own company’s applications in order to reach those of their suppliers and their customers. In shops where this was taking place, it was good-bye dumb terminal.
If this sounds like a job for a PC, it is. Or at least it largely has been up to this point. But it doesn’t need to be. That’s the point. With PCs you get problems. When you have problems, you have higher costs. When you have higher costs, you have someone working above you in the organization who is not very happy.
The problems associated with PCs are primarily related to security and manageability. The issue of security is largely an issue of viruses. PCs have viruses like dogs have fleas. There are products to prevent both the viruses and the fleas, but neither works all that well. Have you ever heard of a thin client with a virus? How about a dumb terminal? If you have, you might want to seek a second opinion.
“Thin clients have a disc-protection mechanism,” explains Martin Pladgeman, president of BOSaNOVA, distributor of thin clients and other network and connectivity products for B.O.S. Better On-line Solutions. “Each has a small read-only partition just for the configuration of files. There are no system files. There’s no way for a virus to infect them, and no way for a user to make changes without security clearance. It is not a wide-open environment.”
On a PC, everything–including the viruses–is committed to the hard drive.
The superior manageability of thin clients comes from a couple of angles. One is that, when dealing with a thin client, virus protection is taken care of at the server, rather than at each individual workstation. The same is true with loading and updating applications: it’s done only once at the server, in a controlled environment. This becomes an even bigger issue at remote sites, where tech support is usually nothing like what exists at headquarters.
And as Michael Oliva, marketing director at Computer Lab International, points out, a thin client can be taken out or put into a network relatively quickly, without the need for tech support. All of this factors into a decision-making process that everyone goes through, Oliva says. Everyone sets out to reduce costs, improve security, and reduce demands on their company infrastructure.
In many ways the benefits of thin clients mirror the attributes of the iSeries. It comes down to the fact that centralized control is far easier than managing dozens of individual points of pain.
It’s these arguments that make a proposal to purchase thin clients into a consideration of the total cost of ownership. Oliva says that IT managers are taking into account the total cost of ownership when considering thin clients. Others say the total-cost aspect is quickly dismissed by managers who are unable to break away from the PC, or who are not planning for the long term.
In Pladgeman’s view, the cost advantages for thin clients are a long-time view. “Consultants say keeping a network PC alive is something like $9,000 and $11,000 per year. This is hard to see in real hard costs. Those costs are spread out and hard to pin down, but they are labor and management costs. It doesn’t occur at the time of the purchase.”
“If you consider how thin clients will save money, compared to PCs, several things stand out,” says Charles Winslow, president of Affirmative Computer Products, a supplier of thin clients specializing in the iSeries market. He points to the cost of fighting viruses at the PC level and the productivity losses related to the tendency among workers to use their workstations as entertainment stations as two things that some managers take into account when comparing a thin client to a PC. He agrees, though, that many managers look the other way when it comes to these issues.
“The thin client is about focusing your employees on the job they are supposed to be doing,” says NLynx Technologies president Scott Haram. “Why put a browser on the client if you don’t want them using a browser? The decision to go with thin client is largely driven by choices to cut out the extraneous stuff and improve control,” Haram says. “It’s not cost savings that usually is driving the sale. The cost difference between a low-end PC and a thin client is not that great for the end user. And the total-cost-of-ownership argument has been around for a long time, but it is not as compelling as you might think. Buyers can do the math for the long term, but the reality they have is this year’s budget. They think in both the short and long term, but long-term costs don’t get that much weight in the process.”
“The toughest competition in a thin client deal,” Winslow says, “is the PC. The PC guys don’t want to hear the total-cost-of-ownership argument. They don’t want to hear that thin clients are easier to support and don’t take viruses.”
“The only solution most people think of today is the PC, because they may not have heard of the thin client,” says Junaid Qurashi, a senior product manager at Wyse Technology. Wyse is one of the leading thin client companies in the world. The iSeries market is but a small piece of Wyse’s overall customer base. “A great many organizations tried, in the mid 1990s, to go from dumb terminals to PCs, and they realized the pain they had to go through in managing those.”
Competition in the iSeries market is strong, and prices are coming down as a result. Companies like Affirmative, BOSaNOVA, and NLynx depend on the iSeries market for practically all of their customers. Computer Lab International, Wyse, and Neoware have many more customers outside the iSeries market than inside it.
Several years ago, analysts predicted that the thin client market was about to catch fire. And though the use of thin clients has grown, those expectations turned out to be a bit premature. The need to access Web applications and other non-host applications is still building.
Next week we’ll provide an overview of the thin client products and examine the impact of Linux on these workstation alternatives.