The post-PC era

Sunday Aug 1st 1999 by Lauren Gibbons Paul
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Thin clients have endured many bumps on the road to acceptance. But there are signs that server-based computing, along with its lightweight PC alternatives, will soon take hold.


Today, early thin-client adopter Chip Childress understands that manageability is the true power of thin clients. But that hasn't always been the case. Four years ago, he was attracted to thin clients because he thought they would be cheaper than full-blown PCs.

AT A GLANCE: Holston Medical Group
The company:
Holston Medical Group is a 250-physician organization based in Kingsport, Tenn.

The problem:
As part of an electronic medical record (EMR) implementation, Holston needed to computerize its staff of physicians for the first time. But back in 1995, the estimated cost per PC was $3,000, much more than the small company could spend.

The solution:
Holston installed Winterm thin clients from Wyse Technology Inc. At a cost of $1,500 each, the company saved $375,000.

The IT infrastructure:
Two hundred and fifty Wyse Winterm thin clients (assorted models), and between 35 and 40 conventional PCs. Hewlett-Packard Net Server and Pro Servers running Citrix WinFrame. SQL Server 6.5 database. Thin clients access the electronic medical record (EMR) system from IDX Systems Corp. of Burlington, Vt.
Childress, director of IS at the Holston Medical Group, a physicians' group in Kingsport, Tenn., was heading up an electronic medical record (EMR) project. The group's doctors, unaccustomed to computers, would be the EMR system's primary users. But PCs were much more expensive back in 1995, and Childress faced an outlay of $3,000 each for 250 machines equipped with 90MHz Pentium CPUs. When he heard that Wyse Technology Inc. had just introduced a small, lightweight desktop machine that would run applications from a central server and cost only about $1,500 each, he was sold.

So he gambled on Wyse's brand-new model 2310 Winterms, saving himself a cool $375,000 in the deal. The $1,500 per machine included a pro-rated share of the cost of hardware and software for the Citrix Systems Inc. WinFrame server.

"It didn't take us long to discover the real benefits of thin clients: substantial reduction in administrative overhead," says Childress. It takes only 10 minutes to get a new Wyse Winterm up and running. If a machine breaks down, data recovery is not an issue, since everything is stored centrally on a Citrix Systems Inc. WinFrame server, which runs on Hewlett-Packard Co.'s NetServer and LXR Pro Server four-way-processor Pentium Pro boxes. Updating software is a snap; you install it just once, on the server. And that's a good thing, since both the Wyse and the Citrix technologies were new when he implemented them, and Childress had to install patches and updates almost every day.

Holston Medical Group is not going back to conventional PCs anytime soon. Even the few administrative staffers who use PCs access their accounting and other software packages through the central Citrix server rather than from a local hard drive. For Childress--and for other IT managers--the centralized management that thin clients offer is priceless. But widespread recognition of the value of thin clients has been a long time coming.

The genesis of thin clients

Thin clients were introduced with much fanfare in 1995. The idea was not new, but it was powerful: a lightweight desktop machine that would access applications and information from a central source on the network but would not do its own processing. Absent floppy or CD-ROM drives and without access to a control panel, users can't add programs or muck around with corporate-standard settings. Such constraints would theoretically reduce the number of crashes and lessen the support load. Many IT managers were eager to take back some of the control they had lost when mainframe and minicomputers gave way to PC-based client/server systems.

Analysts at the time praised thin clients' lower acquisition price and total cost of ownership. But users strongly resisted the move to take away their personal computers. And then when prices of PCs dropped radically, it looked like the thin client market would disappear. Last year, thin client revenues dipped significantly, according to Zona Research, Inc., of Redwood City, Calif. Even the industry's major players (Network Computing Devices Inc., IBM, and Wyse) were hit hard. As with the PC market, the pressure to reduce prices was--and continues to be--intense. NCD is just one vendor that recently cut prices on thin client software and hardware to maintain an edge over ever-cheaper PCs.

Terminal Server to the rescue

But reports of the demise of thin clients were greatly exaggerated. Thin clients may well be poised to make their move, particularly in commercial applications where the work is task-oriented. Microsoft Corp.'s Terminal Server multiuser NT 4.0-based server operating system software for thin clients (which was introduced in late 1998 and replaces the NT 3.5.1-based Citrix WinFrame) will be a boon to the market this year, according to Zona. Companies that were waiting for Microsoft may now get into thin clients for the first time, says Greg Blatnik, a vice president at Zona. The fact that Microsoft recently trimmed Terminal Server prices 20% to 30% has only helped its adoption rate, he says. The suggested retain price for a five-client license of NT 4.0 Terminal Server edition is $1,299. And NT 2000, which will support thin clients on its own, obviating the need for the Terminal Server add-on, is expected by year-end.



Fat future for thin clients?

Zona predicts market for commercial thin clients will soar

thin client market

Source: Zona Research Inc.

Aberdeen expects thin clients to stake a claim on the desktop

thin client market

Source: Aberdeen Group Inc.

Zona predicts the worldwide market for thin clients will soar to over $1 billion by 2001, more than triple the 1998 total of $287 million (see chart, "Fat future for thin clients?"). Driving the increase will be an explosion in a new breed of thin clients. Blatnik believes access devices-as opposed to compute devices like PCs-are the trend. "Internet-enabled phones, pagers, other handheld devices--those are simply another form of thin clients,'' says Blatnik. "Those devices provide access, they don't run the application. You're going to have thin clients almost everywhere you turn. You'll carry them around with you." Toward that end, Yahoo! Inc. and Sprint Corp. announced the week of August 12 that a deal for Yahoo! to license customized content to users of Sprint's mobile and wireless devices.

In its own study, Aberdeen Group Inc., of Boston, projects exponential increases in unit sales of all thin client devices for accessing and processing corporate data stored on a server. By 2003, thin client platforms deployed worldwide will jump to nearly 30% of all desktop platforms, according to the predictions. Aberdeen's definition of thin clients includes Windows-based terminals, network computers, Java-based devices, handhelds, palmtops, and other browser-enabled platforms.

Thin clients are spurring an overall trend toward centralized management and control. Even companies that use PCs are increasingly electing to have applications reside on the server. This will be transparent to the user-unless the network goes down. "Systems administrators are going to exert a tremendous amount of control on your desktop whether you have a PC or some form of thin client. PCs will begin to act like thin clients," says Blatnik.

Should you go thin?

Even though thin clients may be coming into their own, they are not appropriate for every computing environment. Here's what you need to know to decide if thin clients are right for you (see "Ups and downs of going thin").

Thin clients no longer have an advantage on upfront cost. Now you can buy a decent if modest PC for $600 or $700. You may actually pay more for a thin client. A new high-end Wyse Winterm 5355SE network terminal costs $899, manufacturer suggested retail price.

What do buyers of high-end thin clients get for their money? Wyse's Winterm 5000 series includes an embedded Web browser and an SCO Tarantella interface that allows it to interact with SCO UNIX servers. It supports more than 15 types of terminal emulation, and its embedded network management protocols can interact with the most popular network management platforms, including Computer Associates' Unicenter TNG, IBM's Tivoli, and HP's OpenView.

Sold on flexibility and control

Gerry Cullen compared thin clients and PCs in 1997. Although at that time there wasn't much of a difference in the purchase prices, the Winterms offered much greater flexibility and control with application device management, says Cullen, director of special projects for Detroit Diesel-Allison B.C. Ltd., a Surrey, B.C., Canada, distributor of diesel engine parts and services. Most of Detroit Diesel's users are parts managers who access the homegrown electronic parts and services catalog application.

Flexibility and control made thin clients the natural choice for Detroit Diesel-Allison when the company migrated off a Wang Laboratories Inc. VS 10000 minicomputer. With the exception of a handful of people with PCs, the users were accustomed to green screen terminals and were not used to tweaking the settings on a control panel or installing new software programs.

Ups and downs of going thin
Pros:
Manageability
Improved application and device deployment
Dependable hardware (no moving parts)
Cons:
Can't be used by remote workers
Users can't work locally if the network crashes
Some users may resist them

Cullen and two other IT staffers were wary of the huge support demands that would arise if they gave the Wang terminal users PCs. "With our PC users, they would fiddle around with a setting and break something. I'd spend all my time fixing the problem," says Cullen. Now, the Winterm users have access to a standard suite of applications including Microsoft Corp.'s Excel, Word, and Outlook; a terminal emulator; and some homegrown applications--all of which reside on the Citrix server.

Improved remote support

The Citrix server has "shadow" capabilities--when a user calls in with a problem from a remote office, Cullen can see exactly what's going on with the person's machine. "Remote support is so much better in this environment," says Cullen, who appreciates not having to rely on the user's description of the problem. He can solve problems much more quickly than in the Wang terminal days, when even the most urgent problem took an hour to solve. Fixing most glitches now takes just a few minutes. And Cullen estimates that getting a new Winterm up and running takes only six minutes, as opposed to one hour for a PC.

Cullen is so enthralled with the ease of support and administration for the Winterms that he's decided to migrate to an all-thin-client environment. As PCs are retired, they will be replaced by Winterms. Cullen doesn't expect a groundswell of protest. "There's probably eight people who would be resistant. I know exactly who they are," he says. Cullen and his staff are doing the groundwork now to educate users on the business reasons for moving from PCs.


Thin clients can indeed let IT managers escape support hassles, especially where the thin clients serve as terminal replacements, as with Detroit Diesel-Allison, says Zona's Blatnik. "A PC is a loaded weapon. It has the potential to go very wrong if it's in the wrong hands," he says. When the users have not had PCs previously, there are fewer educational and training issues.

Reduced TCO: fact or fiction?

Anything that adds control and centralizes desktop management (as thin clients do) is likely to cost less than support-intensive PCs. That logic seems sound, but it's difficult to demonstrate with hard numbers.

According to a Meta Group Inc. study commissioned last year by NCD, the yearly total cost of ownership for a pure thin client environment is as much as 23% lower than the combined hardware purchase, training, support, maintenance, and operational costs of the typical unmanaged PC LAN environment. Meta estimates that the yearly TCO of a typical PC is $2,824; a thin client's is $2,176. Meta also estimates the break-fix support costs for thin clients are 34% less than unmanaged PCs.

Prices for thin clients head south

Low-priced PCs and a high number of vendors contributed to a steep drop in thin client prices in 1998. This trend will continue, says Zona Research.

thin client prices
Source: Zona Research Inc., April 1999

Numbers like these are interesting but abstract, says Doug Palmer, thin client product manager at systems integrator and reseller Datasource Hagen Inc., in St. Louis Park, Minn. Datasource Hagen sells thin clients from NCD, IBM, and Wyse as well as a variety of PCs.

"Most of our customers just want to get back centralized control. They know total cost of ownership is an issue, but they typically don't believe the numbers they see from consultants, and they don't know how to define it for themselves," says Palmer. "Our clients tend to look at thin clients as a way to reduce the support pains they're experiencing. And that helps them feel better about TCO," even though they may never quantify specific cost savings for themselves, he says.

Although he's not one of Datasource's clients, Ric Seale fits Palmer's characterization to a T. Seale, IT manager for the Collom & Carney Clinic Association, is skeptical of TCO numbers--whether they be for PCs or thin clients. "The numbers always seem a little off," he says.

Collom & Carney, a physicians' group in Texarkana, Texas, recently replaced 150 dumb terminals with IBM Network Station Series 300 thin clients as part of a move from a proprietary, AS/400-based practice management system to an RS/6000-based Medic Computer Systems Inc. MEDIC Vision/PM system.

Seale didn't do a detailed TCO analysis before implementing thin clients; he saw that going with PCs would require hiring one or two more full-time support people. "We didn't run detailed numbers, but we knew if we could keep our staffing down, it would cost us less," he says. And unlike many others, Seale did eke out a modest up-front savings by going with the Network Stations. Each IBM thin client cost $1,200; each PC would have cost $1,500.

The downtime disadvantage

The fact that thin clients run exclusively off the network is the source of both their greatest strength (manageability) and their biggest weakness (downtime). If the network goes down, thin client users have no way of working locally since they have no hard drive to store data. So far, Childress and Cullen say they haven't had much in the way of network downtime. Holston's physicians access the EMR application from a central server, so even if they had PCs, they wouldn't be able to work locally during an outage. "We're not a 24x7 shop. We operate from 7:30 A.M. to 9 at night, so we don't have those demands," says Childress, noting network uptime has been about 97%.

Many large companies that require continuous network operation are electing to install server farms that have load-balancing and failover capability for extra protection, according to Jeff McNaught, vice president of marketing for Wyse, in San Jose, Calif. "A lot of the fears about downtime have gone away," says McNaught.

Lessons learned about thin clients
Focus on long-term costs. The acquisition costs of thin clients and PCs will be about the same, but thin clients typically cost less to maintain and support.
Know your users. Be sure to gauge user acceptance before implementing thin clients. Users who have never worked with PCs are more likely to accept thin clients.
Mix it up. PCs and thin clients can co-exist quite happily. If you decide to try thin clients, pick a small pilot group with cooperative users.

Childress believes thin clients conserve bandwidth on the WAN because all execution of code and requests is done centrally. "All the heavy lifting is taking place on the backbone; we're only feeding the image out to the remote office," he says.

User acceptance

As these users' experiences show, thin clients are unquestionably useful in environments where users did not previously have PCs. The remaining question--and a sticking point for the future of thin clients: Will PC users ever accept thin clients as a replacement?

The fact is, many users are psychologically attached to their PCs; they won't give them up without a fight. Even Zona's Blatnik, who sees a rosy future for thin clients, cautions that gaining user acceptance can be tricky. "It would be difficult to transition a PC population to thin clients,'' he says. "I don't think a wholesale migration to thin clients from PCs is the norm in any case."

Thin clients are not the best solution in all settings, admits Wyse's McNaught. "Thin clients are not about world domination. They are a simpler device to solve customer problems, where they make sense," McNaught says. They make the cleanest fit in single-task environments such as a call center.

McNaught points to GartnerGroup Inc.'s estimates that 20% to 30% of all desktops could reasonably be thin clients. "It's only 20% to 30% if all goes well for us."

Although thin clients will never unseat the PC, they have proven themselves to be a great solution for some companies. Holston's Childress found himself in the unaccustomed role of technology front-runner when server-based computing was all the rage in 1996 and 1997. Says Childress, "We were on the front edge of something--and we didn't even have to bleed." //

Lauren Gibbons Paul is a contributing editor. She can be reached at laurenpaul@mediaone.net.

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