Tech Check

Many enterprises are moving away from PCs to server-based applications feeding thin-client systems. Compared with desktop PC systems, modern thin-client software can reduce equipment maintenance and upgrade costs, introduce fewer end-user problems and offer better control of applications and data. Thin-client systems provide fast access to Windows applications over low-bandwidth connections. But there are drawbacks: You need bigger, more sophisticated back-end servers, and more users are affected by network outages. Moreover, thin clients won't do for compute-intensive or graphics-intensive applications, and there's no off-line access.

Call it thin-client, server-centric computing or virtual user interface software. Products like Citrix Systems Inc.'s MetaFrame, Microsoft Corp.'s Terminal Services and Tarantella Inc.'s Tarantella Enterprise, traditionally found in corporate settings, send only user interface and keystroke data between client and back-end systems.

Using proprietary protocols, these products offer faster access to back-office applications on low-bandwidth wide-area networks while reducing infrastructure and administration costs. So far, IT departments have been reluctant to deploy this technology to internal LAN clients or to a wider range of applications, but that could change as thin-client systems become more attractive for enterprise use.

The newest systems make client software a standard browser plug-in, extending the hardware that's supported. On the back end, administrators can configure the systems to let users access applications though an intranet Web page. Thin-client software sports sophisticated load-balancing features to optimize back-end server performance. Server farms can span data centers, allowing uninterrupted computing during a system upgrade or a catastrophic failure. Most systems now support Secure Sockets Layer encryption.

But thin clients don't fit every situation. They can't support high-end graphics applications, and power users may need their own desktop systems.

Companies with thin-client systems can save money by avoiding PC upgrades, but that's just part of potential savings, says Dan Kusnetsky, an analyst at IDC in Framingham, Mass. In a typical computing implementation, "staffing is 50% to 75% of the three-year cost," he says. Such savings can more than off-set increased costs of servers and software, Kusnetsky says.

John Bolz, systems architect at Wells Fargo & Co. in San Francisco, agrees but says it's hard to get top management to see beyond initial costs: "You can talk [total cost of ownership] till the cows come home, but the cost of deploying servers appears to a lot of eyes as a significant expense."

Tech Check: Thin-Client Computing

Source: IDC, 2001

Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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