Kiwi firms test waters with first NC purchase

Network computers are making headway into the New Zealand market with several NC vendors finding homes here for their products. W Stevenson and Sons, a 600-staff manufacturing and retail company dealing in concrete and construction supplies, has bought five JavaStations from Sun and plans to gradually roll out more NCs as dumb terminal and PC replacements.

Network computers are making headway into the New Zealand market with several NC vendors finding homes here for their products.

W Stevenson and Sons, a 600-staff manufacturing and retail company dealing in concrete and construction supplies, has bought five JavaStations from Sun and plans to gradually roll out more NCs as dumb terminal and PC replacements.

W Stevenson and Sons IT manager Dave Cooper sees JavaStations as an ideal fit for many of the company’s 260 users.

The company, which has 22 locations in Auckland, has a mixture of 90 dumb terminals and 110 PCs, and has had an intranet running for 18 months.

“A lot of our dumb terminal users need more, and many of our PC users only use their machines for intranet browsing, email and access to core applications,” he says.

“With JavaStations we can give dumb terminal users access to graphical browsing and email. They only have text browsers at the moment. Then we can take PCs away from people who don’t use them to the full extent. We’ll start shuffling hardware around until everyone has what suits them.”

The JavaStations, which cost around $2000 each, including monitor, ship with Sun’s Hot Java Views browser, email and calendar software. They also do terminal emulation so users can access the central Oracle database. The database and custom-developed Oracle financials run on Sunsparc and Ultrasparc servers.

“We’re also working on Java applications,” says Cooper. “We’re developing our point-of-sale system in Java — that will probably be written by June — and we’re currently working on other projects such as our business intelligence/reporting system. That’s all written for the JavaStations and the PC’s Netscape browsers and available on the intranet web pages. We haven’t produced paper reports for more than two months now.”

The building supplier has seven IS staff, one of whom works on Java development. “He is uniquely talented and has been following Java closely for quite a while now. He picked a lot of it up by himself,” says Cooper.

Because the company is heading down the Java route, there are still a lot of issues to sort out.When the JavaStations arrived, the IS department plugged them in and used them for a month and then put them on users’ desks to get some feedback.

“There were still some problems with our knowledge, and we’ve taken them back to do some more development and bug fixing. We’ve only had them for a couple of months, so we’re still very much at the development state. But we have now got Java applications running.”

In the meantime, the company has stopped buying PCs, Cooper says. “In the past few months we haven’t bought any, whereas before we had three or four walking in the door each week.”

And Cooper has some advice for those considering network computers. “Don’t go into them thinking they will just replace PCs outright. You still have to know what you’re doing. It’s not a matter of just plugging them in and they go. We have had quite a while to get to grips with the intranet and Java and if you are running an intranet these boxes are the way to go.

“There is certainly a cost involved as far as networking goes. They do place a load on the network — possibly the same as PCs, possibly more. Twelve months ago we upgraded the network to switched Ethernet, which I think it has to be to cope.”

Meanwhile district councils, traditionally strong sites for x-terminals, are also turning to NCs. Rotorua District Council trialled NCD’s network computer last year and installed it about six months ago, says IT services manager Fiona Haldane.

The terminals were supplied by BCL in Auckland and, at the time, Haldane says they were not much cheaper than PCs, although prices have since dropped. “But the real bonus for us was that administration was much simpler. We’re dealing with loading software on one server as opposed to 15 PCs.”

The council had gone from a server and dumb terminal operation a few years ago to a PC/client-server system, but with the same staffing levels in IT. “Any efficiencies we could generate were very important, and these really have solved that for us.” More NCs will be bought in the next financial year, she says.

“We had a few teething troubles — we couldn’t get 32-bit version of the terminal emulation we were using and that caused a few dramas. But we did manage to get hold of it in the end.”

The staff — working in the council’s treasury and planning areas — are mostly running Microsoft applications on the machines. “It’s a similar to the old mainframe/dumb terminal situation, but they’re smart, and they can use Microsoft applications, which is a big bonus.

They just went fine from day one.”

Another difference is that the amount of customisation available to users is limited. “It’s a wee bit more draconian, in a way, because users can’t do what they can do with the PC. But from a network administrator’s point of view, of course, that’s a good feature.”

Haldane says that the internal politics of transferring PC users over to NCs is probably one of the most difficult issues.

Meanwhile, IBM, a late bidder for State Insurance’s network and PC tender, involving around 1500 PCs, is understood to be bidding network computers. The IBM NC will be shipping at the end of April and is expected to be priced at around $1000, including keyboard and mouse.

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