The Quest for a Universal Client

Michael Vizard

One of the long-standing goals of an IT organization has been to establish and maintain a single standard environment for client systems. Some organizations tried to do that by establishing some instance of Windows as their standard client, only to see that effort collapse over time. Now they are also seeing more Apple Macintosh and Linux desktops finding their way into their theoretically pristine IT environments. And just to make things more interesting, smart phones are also now becoming critical client systems in the enterprise in their own right.

A lot of IT organizations have tried to cope with the cost of client computing by embracing terminal services from either Microsoft or Citrix. This approach historically hasn't done much in the way of promoting diversity on the desktop, but it does substantially lower the cost of desktop computing for certain classes of Windows applications.

Alas, technology does not stand still, so now we have virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) solutions being promoted by both VMware and Citrix. A big part of VMware's pitch for VDI includes a new protocol for connecting any desktop to a virtual instance of the desktop running on top of virtual machine hosted on a server. This VMware PC over IP protocol does a better job handling rich, graphics-intensive applications than the protocols that Microsoft and Citrix have developed for terminal services. This may not be the case forever, but at the moment it's a big part of VMware's pitch for VDI.

On the downside, VDI can shift a lot of desktop computing costs to the server. Virtual machines are memory-intensive and the VDI protocol consumes more network bandwidth. Finally, there's more data stored on the server, all of which can conspire to slow application performance in some instances.

Walking into the middle of this VDI versus terminal services debate is Wyse Technology with a new approach that allows PC, thin clients and smart phones to share the same universal client software. That means that as far as the server is concerned all these devices look the same because they are all running a version of Wyse Technology software. Known as Project Borg, the Wyse software is a piece of Linux-based firmware that communicates back to the server using the company's proprietary TCX protocol technology. Wyse has partnered with VMware, which sees the Wyse approach as a natural extension of the company's VMware View implementation of VDI. But the Wyse technology can also work with existing terminal services applications, with the exception for now of the Pocket Cloud implementation of the Wyse Technology software that is used for Apple iPhones. Wyse has not officially announced support for smart phones based on technology from Research in Motion (RIM), Google or Microsoft, but those platforms are the next natural extensions of the platform.

What makes the Wyse Technology approach compelling is that it gives IT organizations a homogenous approach to managing client systems. From an application standpoint, it no longer matters what client device is being used. Some customers might balk at having to rely on Wyse's proprietary protocol, but all the protocols in thin client computing are proprietary. What's significant here is that Wyse has shown that this can be done.

The real question is whether other vendors start to throw their weight behind the Wyse Technology approach, or if the open source community comes together to create a similar, more open approach? Both scenarios will take a while to develop. In the meantime, there's no doubt that a lot of customers could benefit from the Wyse Technology approach.

But more significantly, the Wyse Technology software shows there is hope for a universal approach to client systems. It may not get here in the form of widely adopted standard in the near term. But if enough pressure is applied by corporate customers to drive the creation of standard, we could see a meaningful drop in the cost of client computing.

End users should be allowed to make use of any client system they want. What we really need is a universal approach to managing the diversity of those clients. Wyse Technology has shown us an intriguing way of potentially achieving that goal.

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