Thin clients trim fat

Like an air-traffic controller suddenly noticing a new blip on his screen, IDC Research is now tracking significant growth in thin-client purchases — more than 20 per cent annually over the last several years.

The increased sales picture is undoubtedly inspiring innovations in thin-client architecture from some new and old vendors. In the last two months there have been major announcements from Sun, HP, Wyse and a three-year-old startup called ClearCube.

The four vendors seem to divide themselves into two camps. HP and Wyse, for the moment, are pursuing the traditional market: task-based workers in call centres, hospitals, insurance companies, and financial institutions. Sun and ClearCube are more daring. They are going after the desktop PC market with devices that extend the possibilities of thin clients.

Both camps’ promises are compelling: lower initial cost than a desktop, and less complexity with no hard drive or floppy. It makes for a far more secure and manageable environment.

Typically with a thin client, everything is funnelled through a couple of servers. You don’t have to worry about random e-mails or constant patches. Updates are made on the server, not on every single PC. And when was the last time you heard of someone hacking Windows CE, the typical OS on these devices, asks Bob O’Donnell, director of personal technology at IDC?

The latest Sun Ray solves the problem of the trade-off between all of the above benefits and a less capable desktop machine. You can’t use CAD or software development or even graphics-intensive applications on a traditional thin client. You can on a Sun Ray. Using Solaris, Sun is putting everything on the server, even the rendering, Bob Gianni, director of engineering for the Sun Ray Group, tells me. One mid-range, eight-way server with one copy of the Solaris OS can run 200 users sharing somewhere between 25 to 40 users per CPU. With no local content or data, users can go anywhere on the network, sign in at another Sun Ray and access their applications.

ClearCube is taking on desktops from a different perspective with desktop blades, rack-mounted PC boards with memory, hard drive, and graphics that sit in a cage anywhere in the datacenter. If a desktop blade goes down, ClearCube management software allows the administrator to switch the user over to another blade and to swap the user’s data and settings onto it.

Wyse has revamped its thin clients, making them more powerful and even more manageable. Its Expedian application looks at how applications are running and uses the memory allocated to processors to improve the thin-client performance. HP was outsourcing its thin clients from Wyse but now, having spotted a growing market, is designing and manufacturing its own T5000 series.

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