Which Thin Client Makes Sense, Or Does Any?
August 17, 2004 Dan Burger
The popularity of thin clients has been on the rise for several years as many organizations are taking a closer look at the benefits provided by these desktop options, compared with PCs. Improved security is certainly an important issue, as is cost reduction in areas such as support and system management. Last week’s article “Thin Clients Making Advances in a PC World” gave a market overview of the thin client versus the PC landscape and how it compares with the OS/400 market. This week we look a little closer at the thin client itself and the processes involved in sorting them out.
It’s easy to generalize and say that all thin clients are essentially alike. Companies that manufacture and sell them in the iSeries market, such as Neoware, Wyse Technology, Computer Lab International, Affirmative Computer Products, NLynx Technologies, and BOSaNOVA, each have a range of models that can accommodate most organizations’ needs, whether they’re simple or complex. Pricing and performance will obviously vary from the low end of the scale to the high end. For instance, a low-end thin client will not deliver browser capabilities like a high-end thin client can.
Comparing feeds and speeds can make your head spin. The bottom line will always come down to the user’s perceived performance, an observation often referred to as “front-of-screen performance.” And this is not going to be adequately interpreted from specifications based on such things as CPU core speed, CPU cache, or memory type and speed. Factors such as client software architecture, system bus speed, network connections speed, and other individual circumstances within the company will affect performance.
Most decisions are made based on features and functionality first, price second, and performance third. Frequently buying decisions involve several brands being evaluated in a side-by-side comparison. Most often these are single thin-client comparisons, but in larger deals there may be pilot programs featuring numerous thin clients from two or three manufacturers.
Side by side comparisons usually reveal inadequacies that are important to the buyer. “You have to know whether a thin client supports the latest version or release level of whatever software or browser is important to you,” says Michael Oliva, marketing director at Computer Lab International. “Sometimes knowing what’s needed is a challenge. Does the latest functionality do anything that your company can make use of? Lots of people don’t realize what some of the features are and how they could take advantage of them. Some don’t use their current systems to their fullest degree. It’s not easy to determine what level of functionality is needed, or will be needed in the future.”
That’s not to totally discount performance-related data. It’s more of a warning not to use it as the determining factor when comparing thin clients. Naturally, it will take more powerful thin clients to run features such as Java Virtual Machine and Windows XP embedded and to process highly graphical content.
These considerations are all the more reason to try a thin client before you buy it. There’s a lot of pressure on IT managers to make the right decisions. For every one IT manager that is employed, there are probably dozens of others waiting for a job opening. Managers don’t want to make a mistake. The pressure to get these purchasing decisions right can be intense.
The first point of interest in most any OS/400 shop has to do with terminal emulation. The same features, functionality, price, and performance are not going to be found across the board. It’s not guaranteed that the emulation you get with a particular brand of thin client is going to be what you are used to. It’s very possible that you could be missing some important features and functions. It’s also possible that you won’t care, as long as the emulation offers the basic functionality you need. Some will choose emulation adequacy for a gain in other desirable features. The same is true of 5250 emulation presented with a GUI. Finding out before buying is the point. And if the product falls short in some area, inquire about the degree of customization that is possible and who is responsible for that customization.
In the OS/400 market, the large thin client companies, like Wyse and Neoware, are generally working with the largest buyers. At that level there will be more deals in which PCs are replaced by thin clients, compared with the smaller companies, where thin clients are replacing text-based or dumb terminals.
Bringing Linux to the thin client desktop has been a popular strategy. Not only is the Linux operating system responsible for approximately 20 percent of the overall thin client market, but in the OS/400 community that figure is even higher–in the 30 to 35 percent range, say the thin client manufacturers.
“We push Linux heavily,” says Martin Pladgeman, president of BOSaNOVA. The advantages, as Pladgeman sees them, are that customers get a fully functional device that doesn’t depend on the server for anything. “It gives you 5250 [emulation], a Web browser, Lotus Notes, the top three e-mail clients, and Adobe Acrobat. It’s not necessary to deploy terminal servers, Citrix, or anything like that, which was always one of the stumbling blocks when dealing with companies that have primarily iSeries skill sets.”
Linux has a somewhat checkered reputation and has not been particularly well accepted in the PC world. There have been difficulties with the sign-on, with setting up the network, and with launching applications. On the thin client side, however, these challenges have not created the same set of problems, mainly because thin clients are deployed within a more controlled environment.
Compared with Windows CE, which was originally designed to connect primarily with a terminal server, Linux is chiefly responsible for popularizing the term “intelligent thin client.” The terminology is a marketing department’s dream, considering the term “thin client” is often associated with “dumb terminal.”
The top-of-the-line Linux thin clients can connect to as many as a dozen simultaneous sessions or applications. “This is one of the big differences between a Linux desktop and a Windows CE desktop,” says Charles Winslow, president of Affirmative Computer Products. “Each of the connections–the browser, the AS/400, and whatever else you have running–is viewed as a full screen. And Linux provides a Windows manager. If you are connected to a Windows Terminal Server with CE, you’ll see windows within that full screen, but you cannot have 5250 sessions and browser visible at the same time. Linux looks more like a desktop PC.”
It is expected that Linux will do well in the small and midsized business market because such companies are not as terminal-server oriented. The biggest reason for this is the specialized skill set required by terminal servers. Also, wherever remote sites are critical to the business, Linux thin clients reduce the management requirement, compared with a terminal server environment, in which Citrix bandwidth considerations add extra costs.
Another reason why Linux looks good to some iSeries shops is that all Lotus Web clients must have JVM. Given Microsoft‘s feelings about Java, it’s not surprising to find that JVM support within Windows CE is fairly weak.
The overall question of support is going to be an issue when making a thin client purchase. Frankly, it’s a factor that troubles many customers considering Linux. Because it’s relatively new, compared with Windows, and remains by and large untested, the support is not in line with Microsoft’s.
“Thin clients are evolving; the hardware and operating systems are changing, says Scott Haram, president of NLynx. He sees more inquiries for thin clients that are more powerful and capable of handling Web applications using JVM, Flash media, and streaming video–all memory intensive applications. However, the overall interest in the high-end models–where thin clients are much like PCs–is not great, and they are not big sellers yet.
“A lot of purchase decisions are based on the desired functionality,” Haram says. “It’s popular to want a browser and access to some type of terminal emulation. The most generic thin clients are the low-powered [versions], and are price competitive. [There’s] very little margin in these sales. That makes it difficult for dealers to become excited about thin client, and probably has something to do with why the rise in thin client is not as fast as predicted.”