Thin Clients are Making a Comeback ( ? Again)

Somewhere in the latter days of the era, vendors began once again trumpeting the merits of thin clients: no need for hardware refreshes every three years, they are easier to deploy, etc. and, of course, thin clients have more fun.

But CIOs have been slow to adopt, perhaps leery due to the less than stellar results from those who rushed to the front of the line. But, despite the occasional failures, thin client architectures are steadily gaining ground. In particular, they have done well in point of sale (POS) deployments. And of course, there are still an awful lot of dumb “green screen” mainframe terminals in use.

“In the 90’s, most applicationswere not designed to be thin client-enabled, so they were slow, clunky, and difficult to use, damaging the user experience, and damaging customer service,” said Andi Mann, an analyst with Enterprise Management Associates. “Applications now are being designed specifically for Web-based and remote computing, so they are faster, easier, and more feature-rich, even on a thin client.”

He believes that new Web browsers (including AJAX and other Web 2.0 capabilities) make the thin-user experience faster and more interactive. A software as a service (SaaS) model for delivery, too, has helped to drive use cases for thin clients. Further, virtualization makes it even easier as the data center now hasmuch more sophisticated capabilities to deploy feature-rich capabilitieswithin a thin client environment.

“In general, the biggest benefits accrue to companies that have large volume of in-house process workers doing repetitive activity in a limited number of computing environments like call centers, data entry operators, etc.,” said Mann. “They can operate a low-power application across a fixed network with minimal processing and minimal variation.”

Thin clients, however, aren’t good for some demanding mobile uses or for power-user applications such as data analysis and complex computing, he added.

Options and CIO views

There are plenty of choices when it comes to thin clients. For example, Wyse Technology of San Jose, Calif., offers a series of small units for the desktop and the laptop. Sun Microsystems sells the energy efficient Sun Ray, and HP makes the Neoware thin client series. Such devices are attracting the attention more and more CIOs. Mann points out that thin clients essentially eliminate desk-side visits by IT support to fix PC problems, install new software, perform upgrades, etc., which is a huge cost saver by itself.

“They certainly reduce hardware costs. The average thin client is probably around $150 and will last for 4-6 years, whereas a basicthick PC is probably $600-$800 and will last 2-3 years,” said Mann. “They also make software management much easier and less expensive, because just one or two standardimages can replace potentially hundreds or even thousands of individual systems.”

This can improve security and compliance because applications and data are centralized in the data center instead of being scattered and available on hundreds or thousands of individual systems. A big fan of the thin client is Jack Wilson, enterprise architect at Amerisure Mutual Insurance Co. based in Farmington Hills, Mich. He believes CIOs should shift their view of thin clients from tactical to strategic.

“Thin clients are new to many IT shops and perhaps more importantly, they haven’t thought of it in terms of it being part of a competitive strategy,” said Wilson. “Many tend to think of it only in a call center scenario or have the misconception that it will limit people’s ability to function.”

Amerisure operates nine remote offices in the Midwest and South. With around 800 employees, desktop management is a real issue. Wilson believes the standard bulky desktop model is fragile at best. In his experience, one change tended to break something else. If he upgraded software, for example, it might have a cascading effect throughout the infrastructure.

In addition, remote PCs and laptops proved a nightmare to manage. While IT attempted to push out software and updates, users would be merrily downloading and installing their own applications, leaving the doors wide open to viruses. That led Wilson to investigate the thin client option.

His company decided to re-architect the enterprise centered around pizza box servers from Dell; Citrix XenApp software; VMware virtualization; and super-slim Wyse 5150SE, S50 and X90 clients. These tiny devices don’t have hard drives, fans or CD-ROMs. Wilson characterized them as being little more than a circuit board running Linux with a Citrix client. They are about the size of an external CD drive. They also have a keyboard, mouse and screen. The desktop models are around $250 each.

He justified the entire upgrade based on the cost of one PC refresh. Organizations typically change out a third of their PC’s every year and that keeps a large team busy dealing with desktop images, software changes and user configurations/data. “Every three years, we would be paying $1.2 to $1.5 million for a PC refresh when you take into account hardware, software and labor,” said Wilson. “With our current set up we don’t have a single desktop to refresh.”

These days, if a Wyse unit breaks down, a user takes another one out of the cupboard and plugs it in. At a cost of $250 each (and $700 per replacement Wyse unit), he says his hardware costs are much cheaper. And no more changing out of 800 PCs every three years.

Green Machines

One further element that may tip the balance in favor of thin clients is power usage. While green IT may be in vogue, it is economics that is really driving this trend.

“The total power consumption of a typical PC and monitor which can be as high as 175 watts, whereas thin clients like a Sun Ray can use as little as four watts,” said Mann.“Thin clients require less physical material in manufacture, and less physical material is disposed when they are at end-of-life, so it certainly seems there may be a substantial ‘green’ benefit.”