Skinny-dipping - Thin is in, as long as you call it server-based computing

Thin client computing has had another makeover: it's got a new name and a variety of new form factors. Thin-client server computing was "officially" renamed server-based computing by Citrix president Mark Templeton at Citrix's inaugural Thinergy conference, held earlier this month in Orlando, Florida.

Thin client computing has had another makeover: it’s got a new name and a variety of new form factors.

Thin-client server computing was “officially” renamed server-based computing by Citrix president Mark Templeton at Citrix’s inaugural Thinergy conference, held earlier this month in Orlando, Florida.

“For years we wouldn’t mention the server, it was all about the client or remote access computing. We didn’t want to be compared to the old mainframe way of doing things.”

Whatever you want to call it, running all the applications and data on the server while keeping the client end of business as thin as possible is all the rage in Florida. More than 2000 visitors looked through Thin City at 60 vendors’ wares and most were pleasantly surprised.

“I was expecting there to be a range of boxes that all looked the same and did the exact same thing,” said one delegate, and it was a sentiment echoed by many.

Instead, visitors found a range of products, from entry-level set-top boxes selling for around $US300 to software solutions for load balancing within an individual server to wireless terminals for use in hospitals.

Wyse had the largest range of terminals, including one NC built into the monitor’s case, but the reward for reducing the unit’s footprint to barest minimum had to go to Key Tronic’s NC built into its own keyboard. When used in conjunction with a flat screen, as they almost all were, the NC weighed no more than a notebook.

Some units were less thin than others. One solution, from US-based WebSonic came bundled with Dragon Dictate’s speech recognition software package, running on the client.

“Speech recognition is best done at the client’s end of things, we’ve discovered. So we built it all in to the NC and it still takes up a surprisingly small amount of room,” says marketing vice-president Thomas Offutt.

Next year could even see a thin notebook, designed for the business traveller. Some applications would have to be housed locally — one wag suggested games — with everything else being hosted on the server. Travellers would connect to the network via modem and experience high-speed access to their applications from their hotel room.

As different companies work out the detail involved with the shift to server-based computing, new areas of opportunity are opening up. One such area is application service provider, or appsourcing, as it’s also known.

Appsourcing could only arise under a server-based system. With no local memory to speak of, users will need to store information somewhere else. ASPs will offer such a service, hosting both data and applications, completely changing the way software is licensed in the process.

“Appsourcing goes hand-in-hand with the idea of server-based computing. If everything is run from the server then remotely storing applications as well as data will be a growth area in the years to come,” says Citrix chairman Ed Iacobuci.

Microsoft representatives at the conference were less than forthcoming on the subject.

“It’s not something we’ve given a lot of thought to, but we’d like to see what develops.”

Currently, products like Microsoft Exchange are being touted as prime candidates, working in conjunction with free email accounts offered by many of the portals springing up on the Web, but no one is too sure where it will go from there.

“This is something we almost didn’t introduce to this conference because we thought it would be too far off the wall. But we’ve been approached by a number of partners who are very interested in putting something together,” says Iacobuci.

UUNet, a business-centric US-based ISP, is working with outsourcing company Telecomputing to provide a similar service for around 500 users in Europe.

“We guarantee 99.7% up-time for our customers and that includes the applications. We offer a three-year fixed-rate contract that includes penalty clauses if we fail to meet our target so our customers know where they stand in terms of predicting their IT costs,” says Telecomputing’s general manager, Jostein Eikeland.

Telecomputing can host the customer’s data and applications on its server farm, although at this stage its customers have to buy the software as they would traditionally. Applications are deployed from the data centre to customers using ICA in either WinFrame or MetaFrame.

“Our customers don’t have to worry about bandwidth, redundancy, downtime or upgrading their systems every 18 months, and they’re assured of a standard IT environment throughout their organisation.”

Security is obviously a concern in such a situation — data transfer between server and client is over frame relay with an ISDN for backup, but the storage of a company’s data is a particularly sensitive area.

“We have a very strict policy both internally and externally to govern security. Most of our own employees do not have access to the customer data and we go to great pains to avoid competitors being compromised,” says Eikeland.

On an individual level, appsourcing could provide server-based computing to the home — telecommuters or students, for example. The Internet connection needed for server-based computing is relatively small, around the 20Kbit/s mark, reducing the need for expensive cabling, like DSL or ISDN. Users could pay a regular charge for the use of spreadsheets or word processors and a micro-charge for something they wouldn’t need every day, say a presentation application.

While the details are still to be worked out, ASP could very well be the next acronym you’ll need to know about.

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