Another Year for Thin Clients


Thin client technology is like the Chicago Cubs of the IT world: it's been building for a long time and is just about to break out, just as soon as it works out a few more details.

But no matter how much the analysts and experts like them, thin clients just can't seem to close the deal at most enterprises. The litany of pros vs. cons is well-known at this point: lower capital and operating costs against stubborn user resistance and network latency. The stalemate has kept thin clients waiting in the wings for several decades now, registering only the slightest uptick last year during the oil price hike.

The funny thing is, though, that with virtualization and high-speed datacenter networking now gathering steam, it's likely that many of the performance issues are likely to fall away over the next few years. So it's no surprise that the thin client industry is back again this year with new lower-cost models that it hopes will prove too economical to resist.

Take Germany's IGEL, for example. With strong government backing, the company has come out with the IGEL One that lists for 128 pounds sterling, about US$200. For that price, you get a client that can run five different server protocols, including XenApp and Terminal Services, plus an onboard VNC client for centralized remote IT support. The company says the system is designed for up to 250 users.

It's also important to note that many utility companies are starting to see the benefits of thin clients on their energy infrastructures and are willing to speed up widespread adoption. NComputing' newest release lists for $70 per user but is available for rebates by some utilities that brings the price down to $45. The unit, which is about as large as a coffee cup, allows you to share one PC among seven users, costing only about 1 watt per user. The company has qualified for rebates in 12 states, plus Manitoba and British Columbia, Canada.

For a really extreme solution, however, you should keep an eye on ASUS, which recently unveiled the prototype Eee Keyboard that contains an embedded PC using the Atom N270 processor and sporting a five-inch touchscreen/trackpad. The unit weighs in at 2 pounds and is expected to begin shipping by June with 32 GB SSD memory, Windows XP, 802.11n and HDMI-out. It's probably not the best solution for all IT applications, but will probably provide a reasonable solution for many mundane tasks.

As with most technology deployments, however, it's best to have a plan. Author and IT consultant Rick Freedman says any migration to thin client architectures should include a full assessment of all applications that are involved to ensure that necessary resources are available and the proper protocols are in place. You'll also need to take stock of your server and VM architectures to ensure they can handle the client traffic, and then implement the migration on a staggered basis to ensure that any conflicts can be resolved before they significantly affect operations.

Critics of thin client technology argue that much of the capital and operational savings are countered by the need for increased server, storage and network architectures. That's probably true, but the fact is that most enterprises are faced with increasing their centralized resources anyway, simply to take advantage of new virtual and cloud-based technologies.

Thin clients can certainly piggy-back on that trend, but only if they can convince the powers that be that the cost-savings don't come at the expense of decreased productivity.