Slim-down of the Microsoft plan

The buzz about Windows-style thin-client computing has increased to something of a constant drone. In fact, with beta sites charging into production applications and a whole new bureau-style service industry emerging, it's louder than Microsoft itself will admit - and even louder than Microsoft wants.

The buzz about Windows-style thin-client computing has increased to something of a constant drone. In fact, it's louder than Microsoft itself will admit - and even louder than Microsoft wants.

Consider some of the buzz:

-- Many beta sites for Windows NT Server 4.0 Terminal Server Edition (TSE), as it's officially known, are so excited by the product they have rolled beta code into production applications.

-- A whole new bureau-style service industry is leaping out of the starting blocks. Companies such as Veicon Technology in Beaverton, Ore., and Learningstation.com offer hotel chains and school systems the ability to plug a Windows-based terminal into a wall outlet, and run server-based applications and surf the Internet.

-- Server manufacturers, notably NCR and Data General, and specialised server companies such as Network Engines of Randolph, Mass., are loading TSE in rack-mounted systems packed with CPU boards, RAID disk arrays, and clustering software to support line-of-business applications.

-- Network integrators report a rising tide of interest among corporate customers who want to simplify their Windows administration chores and pare down their support costs.

Thin clients may yet change forever the nature of Windows computing: the trend is toward even thinner clients - everything from information appliances such as handheld PCs, to set-top boxes that marry television with the Internet, to wireless Web phones that have small screens.

Innocent beginnings

TSE is a multiuser version of NT based on technology created by Citrix Systems. It spins the Windows client/server model around 180 degrees so it's the Windows server/client model.

Instead of loading your applications on a Windows PC, you load them on a TSE server where they can be shared by groups of users. The client device can be almost anything - from older PCs with Windows 3.1 to Pentium II systems to newfangled Windows-based terminals, which are simply display devices that run a stripped-down version of Microsoft's Windows CE operating system.

"Microsoft still positions TSE as a transitional technology to a full 32-bit desktop," says Greg Blatnick, vice president of network computing at Zona Research in Redwood City, Calif. But customers are looking at the benefits of running centralized applications at a time when the Internet is getting people accustomed to accessing information on servers. "In big organizations, this is a very desirable model," Blatnick says.

The benefits include a lower total cost of ownership, better application performance for end users and simpler administration, according to TSE beta-tester Doug Thompson, information architect at Home Shopping Network, a television-based retailer headquartered in St. Petersburg, Fla.

"Much testing needs to be done before we do large-scale deployment, but it's promising," Thompson says.

The technology exists today to make TSE servers and their applications very reliable and very high performance, says Don Adams, director of technical services at Network Engines. "It looks and feels like a Windows mainframe," Adams says.

What's catching some observers by surprise is how adaptable and broadly applicable the approach is, especially with Internet computing. "We have everything from small single-server customers to some fairly sizeable load-balanced server cluster sites," says Scott Gorcester, president of Moose Logic, a Seattle thin-client systems integrator.

One new wrinkle is lowering communications costs by accessing TSE applications via the Internet. "We use the Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol and Microsoft Proxy Server to do that," Gorcester says. "Customers are telling us, 'We need to get to our line-of-business applications, and we can't afford the WAN connection costs.'" These customers are turning to Internet access and Citrix's MetaFrame software to optimize TSE performance.

This adaptability of the Windows thin client is opening people's eyes to the potential of even thinner clients - information appliances that run a very small operating system kernel (which may or may not be Windows-based) and offer a set of simple push-button-type functions that no longer have to be tethered to a full-blown Windows PC.

The appliances, although they include such devices as handheld or palm computers running Windows CE, also include rival platforms such as 3Com's Palm III, which has its own operating system.

"The vision is to make information access easier and less expensive," says Greg Wolff, group manager of product marketing for Sun's embedded and consumer technologies group. "Information access is today all through the PC. This is a bottleneck. These other devices will make information more accessible, and then people will go to the networks for more things. And go more often."

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