Intel on Thin Clients: If You Can't Beat 'em, Join 'em

Just a week after Intel Corp. President Andy Grove told Comdex/Fall '97 attendees that the PC industry must redefine its business, the chip maker did just that: by embracing network computers (NC) and other so-called thin-client computing devices. Intel last week said it has drafted guidelines for an array of Intel Pentium-based 'lean-client'' devices and network servers, on which the clients rely for storage, file management, application processing and other services.

Just a week after Intel Corp. President Andy Grove told Comdex/Fall '97 attendees that the PC industry must redefine its business, the chip maker did just that: by embracing network computers (NC) and other so-called thin-client computing devices. Intel last week said it has drafted guidelines for an array of Intel Pentium-based "lean-client'' devices and network servers, on which the clients rely for storage, file management, application processing and other services.

Lean client is Intel's term for any computing device that differs from the traditional Windows PC, with its local hard drive, systems box and store of local applications and data.

The most striking part of the guidelines is that Microsoft Corp.'s Windows is simply one operating system option that can be selected by manufacturers and their customers.

Intel-authored drafts already have been seen by operating system and hardware vendors, including Microsoft, IBM, Citrix Systems Inc., Novell Inc., Compaq Computer Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co., NEC Corp. and Wyse Technology Inc.

A final version of the documents, one for lean clients and one for network servers, will be ready by April, according to Mitch Shults, director of server platform marketing for Intel's Enterprise Server Products group. ``We expect to see lean client products based on these documents and designs in 1998,'' he said.

The client document de-scribes the basic elements of a lean client device: no hard drive, a 100-MHz Intel Pentium microprocessor, a range of memory recommendations depending on the device's purpose, and an array of management features and APIs in software and firmware.

The existing generation of servers, with some additional management software, generally satisfies the draft server document, Shults said.

As a result, the document will focus mainly on giving computer builders details on how to configure their servers with a specific lean-client software stack, such as that from Network Computer Inc., (NCI) the Oracle Corp. subsidiary that develops and sells client and server software for Java-based NC systems. NCI will port its NC Desktop and NC Server Suite software packages, which use a small Unix kernel, to the Intel-based systems.

The exact relationship be-tween lean clients and servers will depend on what kind of lean client a manufacturer builds from the Intel guidelines. NCI's software, for example, is aimed at an NC product that downloads and runs Java applications, occasionally accessing a server for a special application or for file services. But a Windows terminal type of lean client will interact continuously with the server, where all the application processing is handled.

Whatever the arrangement, Intel wants the processor piece of it. ``Intel is explicitly recognizing the existence and legitimacy of the lean clients,'' Shults said. ``We're doing engineering work and marketing [to support them]. This is a new and incremental market that previously was served by [alphanumeric] terminals.''

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