Thin clients vs. Smart Displays

Summary:If you want to understand what happened to Sun, look no further than Sun Marketing's insistence on selling the Sun Ray as a thin client - something it isn't. Thin clients have few organizational consequences, smart displays have many - and that's the distinction this is about.

This entry is about correcting a common misconception about the Sun Ray - and, to do it out of turn I've moved the Unix job description entry to next week.

Many of the comments, both those written to the blog and those received privately, came from people who clearly think of the Sun Ray as a thin client. It is not - and Sun marketing's willingness to cater to this market misperception was, I think, diagnostic for its wider failure to move leading edge product.

A few years ago one of the wintel companies offered a PC architecture in which the graphics board was connected to the motherboard by cable. This enabled the customer to put the PC in a data center rack for easy access while putting the graphics controller, keyboard, mouse, and monitor on the user's desktop.

Notice that the remote graphics board for the PC can't be considered a "client" in a client-server sense because it does no application processing and is really just the normal display management component from the PC with the local motherboard connection stretched out as a cable.

Think of Sun Ray as the multi-user, multi-host version of this and you'll understand the key to its simplicity of operation.

Thin clients, in contrast, attempt to do at least some local processing and run some local OS - even if, like Sun's mid eighties diskless workstations, that OS is downloaded from the server at boot time. That can make them harder to abuse, but a client is a client and the complications arise from the architecture, not the nature of the client - thus both PC style thin clients and Linux desktops offer some benefits relative to the traditional wintel approach, but neither offers dramatic change and neither choice ultimately affects organizational structure and behavior.

As usual there's history to the distinction: back in the eighties when Unix vendors like Sun and Apollo experimented with thin clients their actions were mostly motivated by the cost of local disk - then over $1,000 for 30MB devices - and ended when disk prices fell much faster than progress was made in reducing the operational complexity of the set-up.

In the alternative approach the Plan 9 people at AT&T invented the Gnot as the first real network display, Sun developed NeWS, and NCD started its first line of X-terminals. Gnot never went commercial and NeWS fell to Adobe's licensing demands on PostScript, but NCD succeeded both technically and commercially until it eventually fell victim to a VP with a Microsoft driven NT infatuation and started making cheap thin clients instead of high end smart displays.

Specifically the original NCD network computer offered only an X-server that handled user interaction and absolutely nothing else - providing 24 bit color at 1600 x 1200 on 21" screens at a time when the PC press was erupting enthusiasm over 13 inch greyscale screens at 640 x 480 - and despite the fundementally brain damaged nature of X, some NCD HMX terminals are still in use today.

In contrast NCD's initial venture into the thin client world, software for an x-terminal capable of connecting to NT and running the Mosaic browser locally, ultimately led to what is now Citrix and various licensed thin client products, but also signalled the end of the company's commitment to technical leadership, network computing - and profitability.

At Sun meanwhile, Bill Joy's MAJC chip design was intended to power a new generation of super terminals but his ability to get the CPU made didn't extend to getting a corporate commitment to the new desktop, and so we got the ill conceived and ill fated Java Station -a seriously overweight and under powered "thin" client- instead.

The Java Station was both a technical and a commercial disaster - and would have faded quietly into history if a few recidivist engineers hadn't modified the Solaris X/Postscript display software for download, hung a Java Station with all the client code stripped out at the end of it, and called the result a Sun Ray.

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To repeat: what they'd done was take a thin client and turn it into a smart display by taking out its ability to run anything locally. That's what makes a smart display smart: lots of graphics power, no local code - basically a recreation of the NCD network computer but latterly with faster hardware, better software, better branding, and a more focussed security agenda.

Although Sun "sales" still calls the thing a thin client and there are always people trying to impose some local processing on it, the current Sun Ray 3 and its matching software is still very much like that early device: no local processing ensuring both no local hassles and complete portability, while better hardware and server software mean it can display almost anything - from real time Unix/HPC imagery to Wintel and MacOS applications.

Notice that the bottom line here is simplicity and the freedoms and reliability you get from that: no local processing means no ambiguity (and therefore no help desk), no software limits, and no desktop product churn: just load up the applications and trust Unix to run them, whether you have one user or thousands.

 

Topics: Oracle, Hardware

About

Originally a Math/Physics graduate who couldn't cut it in his own field, Paul Murphy (a pseudonym) became an IT consultant specializing in Unix and related technologies after a stint working for a DARPA contractor programming in Fortran and APL. Since then he's worked in both systems management and consulting for a range of employers inc... Full Bio

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