Sun's Vass resurrects the ultra-thin network computer

You can't put a trojan on it, but you can still crunch numbers or write a letter, Sun's Bill Vass tells Kiwis

Bill Vass, worldwide CIO of Sun, is pushing the ultra-thin client and “network computing” message in New Zealand, bending the ear of IT minister David Cunliffe as well as Auckland and Wellington audiences of IT managers at events organised by CIO magazine.

The “stateless” desktop with as little local software as possible is the way of the future, Vass believes, with all the "smarts" performed in central server farms. There is no local operating system to be infected with viruses, practically zero maintenance of the client machine and instant availability of a user’s desktop layout and files at any location with a link to the network, he says.

He demonstrated to the CIO audience how he could walk up to any of the desktop machines — a Sun Ray ultra-thin client or a “fat” conventional PC — slip in his identifying card and immediately have his personal desktop displayed where he last left off working with it. In fact, he points out, a user can have a number of “workspaces” that relate to various roles and perhaps a “home” desktop — except that the home machine will be equally accessible from the office and vice-versa.

It’s all familiar, even nostalgic, stuff. Oracle, with some help from Sun, was promoting a similar concept about eight years ago as the “network computer”, subsequently subtly rechristened “network computing”. Yet with all the maintenance and security problems, most users and their companies stuck with the tried and true PC.

What’s different now? For one thing, communications has improved, particularly over the wide-area network, says Vass. “In those days, the network wasn’t up to it. Now we have broadband."

Told that some New Zealanders would still dispute the capability of local broadband services, Vass says the ultra-thin client architecture is operable over as little as 125kbit/s. Heavy workloads might require a workgroup server local to the desktops and synchronised regularly with the central servers, he says, and for some kinds of work the “fat” PC will still be necessary. “We’re not claiming to have totally outmoded that.”

An important driver for IT managers to look at the ultra-thin client is the “collapsing” budget, he says. His own annual budget for the worldwide Sun IT network has come down from US$600 million (NZ$890 million) to a mere US$300 million in the four years he has been CIO. Sun CEO Scott McNealy “wants me to reduce costs and complexity”, says Vass, and this is a common experience of many IT managers.

Backing up the network is an array of servers running Sun grid software. Most of these machines are also “stateless”, he says, meaning they can be switched off and come to no harm, because the data will be replicated on other servers in the cluster and the workload will be dynamically rebalanced. There have to be a few “master” servers that keep track of the state of the whole system.

Sun is in the process of “collapsing” the telephone network onto the digital network and incorporating a “soft phone” into the company’s Sun Rays. “Then I’ll be able to have my office phone at home,” Vass says.

The identifying card normally incorporates two-factor ID, through a PIN or a separate cellphone-delivered key. It doubles as a building access card, so the physical location of an employee can be checked as a further safeguard against fraudulent use.

The architecture makes everything dependent on the network, Vass acknowledges, but that is no less so with today’s internet-connected “fat” clients. “People already do next to nothing when the network's down,” he says. Most employees’ data is already on the server and their client’s locked down, so they may as well go all the way and have a completely dumb desktop, he says.

His previous employer, the US Department of Defence, “has thousands of Sun Rays for security reasons. You can't hack [a machine as unintelligent as] a TV. You can’t put a Trojan on it because there’s no place to put one.”

The ultra-thin client is ideal for providing basic applications and internet access to hotel guests, or to children, he says. “They can’t fiddle with it and mess it up.” A family can afford a Sun Ray for each room and the IT-knowledgeable member of the family is not landed with the job of demestic maintenance engineer as is the case with many PC-networked families.

The consumer’s exposure to networking and particularly the internet has reversed, Vass says. “You used to experience the internet at work and say ‘I want that at home’. Now you see the next big thing in [the retail store] and ask ‘Why can’t I have that in the office?’”

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