Get ready for a new breed of thin client device that aims to be so flexible and cost-efficient that some are saying we could be seeing the last days of the tried-and-true PC in the enterprise.
Typical thin client approaches utilize a stripped down PC with just enough memory and storage to maintain network connectivity and launch operating systems and applications from a central server. The new generation goes to even further extremes.
Take, for instance, the solution from California start-up Pano Logic. The Pano is an all-hardware virtualization device that contains no software at all. No OS, no apps, not even a driver. It also has no storage, and uses virtual I/Os to maintain connectivity. You basically plug in your mouse, keyboard or other device to access a VMware virtual machine running Vista or XP.
The Pano connects to a central server running the Pano Management Server that manages the virtual environments being sent out to clients. Should an environment become unstable, the client device has a "Pano button" that automatically reboots a virtual machine. Future Pano buttons will be tied to specific functions, such as recalling data snapshots.
Also pushing the thin-client envelope is the Nivo, billed as an "ultra-thin" client by its British maker, Ndiyo, by virtue of its stripped-down architecture. Although still at the prototype stage, the Nivo is slated to provide low-cost computing services to developing nations. Again, there's no local storage and very little actual processing capabilities. But in this case, the central server can be another PC running the Nivo software on either Linux or Windows.
The idea that one PC could act as the server for many others appeals to more than just third-world users. A California firm called NComputing is taking the idea to U.S. educational systems with the Xtenda card. The card plugs into the host machine and connects to up to three "J boxes" that connect the keyboard, monitor and mouse for thin clients, at a cost of $210. Enterprise solutions include the L Series featuring a custom processor for Ethernet connectivity, and the X Series that uses PCI cards for connection over UTP cable.
While these new solutions do address the cost and complexity issues that have hampered thin client solutions in the past, it's still unclear whether they are enough to kick-start the market now that virtualization has at least made it viable again. The latency and performance problems that have arisen over thin client architectures are likely to be more acute with a client that's been stripped to the bare bones.
Still, at price points several hundred dollars less than a traditional one-PC-per-user approach, maybe not everyone in the enterprise needs to be kitted out for optimum performance after all.