The Desktop Diet Plan

The Windows PC has pushed too much complexity onto the desktop. What's worse, every user thinks he's entitled to a complex, general-purpose Windows-based computing machine. Don't believe it? Just try to pry that Windows PC from any user's cold, dead fingers.

Analysts peg annual desktop management costs at more than $10,000 per desktop, and it's not hard to understand why. Bloated Windows registries, disparate PC hardware and an array of desktop applications create a complex web of variables that require a sophisticated and costly management infrastructure, all to maintain what IT hopes will be the same basic applications across thousands of machines.

Thin-client technologies, such as Citrix's MetaFrame XP and Microsoft's Terminal Services, bring much of that complexity back into the data center, where IT can manage it more easily - and without unnecessary replication. These tools centralize desktop management by sharing out server-based instances of Windows and applications to end users. Only screen images and keystrokes pass between the client and server, requiring about 20K bit/sec. of bandwidth. But while these tools have been used for remote server administration and remote desktop connectivity over bandwidth-starved wide-area networks, most companies have shied away from using them for delivering line-of-business applications inside the firewall. It's time to take another look.

Thin-client software has improved of late. Both MetaFrame XP and Terminal Services in the upcoming Windows .Net Server boast improved speed and scalability and can use Active Directory to allow role-based access to customized application sets. Both also offer a browser plug-in client and can present the user's applications on a customized, easy-to-navigate intranet Web page. On the scalability front, support for load-balancing allows servers to scale out. MetaFrame XP provides an additional layer of fault tolerance by allowing server farms to be distributed across data centers. Meanwhile, the arrival of systems based on Intel's Itanium 2 processor, with its Level 3 cache and 64-bit memory architecture, promises to dramatically increase the number of supported users per server. On the client side, machines such as the $299 Wyse Winterm 1200LE deliver a stateless user desktop with an embedded Microsoft or Citrix client. But there's no need to throw existing hardware away, since any machine with a browser can serve as a thin client. And because the architecture decouples the end-user PC hardware from the desktop operating system and application software, software upgrades and service-pack updates can roll out more rapidly. In organizations with many remote offices, a thin-client system could eliminate the need for some distributed file and application servers. One IT executive at a large U.S. bank says he expects that strategy to cut total cost of ownership by 75%, for a savings of $9 million a year. These developments should make thin clients hard to resist. But end users and IT still have reservations. The biggest obstacle may be political. IT still must overcome objections from users who aren't likely to cotton to anything that restricts their God-given right to have their own traditionally configured desktop PCs. A very stable thin-client device with a nice color LCD panel might, however, make converts of those struggling with the Win 9x blue screen of death. In larger organizations, resistance may also come from help desk teams who see thin-client technology as a threat to their jobs. IT managers are also wary of the extra integration work that may be required to add thin-client software to the application and server mix. They must weigh that against the effort of packaging, distributing and managing software across thousands of PCs. And users of CAD and other CPU-intensive applications, as well as mobile users who need off-line access to applications, may not fit a thin-client model. Many end users, however, merely run general line-of-business applications and don't need traditional desktops to do to their jobs, much as they think they do. And in today's connected world, users often can't do much more than play solitaire when they lose network dial tone anyway. For these users, a thin-client system is more efficient and manageable.

So before you go forward with that next major desktop deployment, check out the thin-client alternative. If your help desk objects, ask them if they'd like to do something more interesting than troubleshooting those 10,000 Windows registries.

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