The top Sun Ray myths

The top Sun Ray myths

Summary: When you look closely at the top eight reasons people cite for not using Sun's Sun Ray based central processing architecture in business you get a surprise: they're all wrong.


One of the lessons I believe we can learn from productivity change in the telecom industry is that centrally provisioned services can be extremely attractive to consumers provided that the service provider does not impose artificial controls on what the user can do with the device.

My favorite tool for implementing this idea in IT combines Solaris on SPARC with Sun Ray desktops and the devolution of systems control (as opposed to systems operation) to user management.

I'll talk about the management aspects of this a bit next week, but for now thought I'd recognize the reality that very few IT people have ever actually seen, never mind used, a Sun Ray by summarizing the top reasons people put forward to argue that it's not as good as a PC:

  1. if the network goes down, you go down.

    This is true. You should note, however, three things about this claim:

    • the problem affects all network dependent systems, including PCs whose users need central authentication, web access, or server stored documents to work;

    • with the typical Unix distributed data center strategy a local failure taking place anywhere on the network inward of the first switch or hub the Sun Ray connects to, will have little or no discernible effect on operations; and,

    • outside of consumer telco or cable company operations, network failures not caused by PC style switching are extremely rare.

      I haven't been able to find out how many user-hours are lost to network issues (other than planned construction or moving) per year at Sun where more than 33,000 people use Sun Rays every day -because the number is apparently so small it's either not considered reportable or not specifically tracked. Certainly no user I talked to could remember it ever happening.

  2. laptops are a requirement.

    There is a Sun Ray laptop, but I don't normally recommend it. Instead I usually suggest that laptop requirements be carefully reviewed and appropriate Apple, Linux, or Wintel gear issued where needed.

    In most cases such reviews produce non obvious results: today's iPhone (and tomorrow's clones) can do a lot of what laptops used to be needed for; most people who claim to work effectively on the road, don't; most people who want laptops as desktop replacements are really trying to escape centralized IT controls on software change and/or shared licensing; and, most client-site use of laptops poses significant but unquantified risks to both proprietary and client data.

  3. screen space and resolution are limited.

    A few people who send me email have experience with the earliest Sun Rays - and 13 inch early laptop style screens. Those days are long gone - now Sun's "thinguy" puts pictures in his blog showing dual and quad head Sun Rays displaying Windows server software running at 3840 x 1200

  4. there's no software.

    The Sun Ray runs no user software - it's a just a user interface device displaying whatever it's sent and capturing user input for transmission to the application. As a result it is currently usable with essentially all Windows, Linux, and Solaris software - and can handle Mac software written for use with the X11 interface too.

    In other words, the device is usable with more software than anything else out there.

  5. the fact of central control renders systems using this as unresponsive as 1970s data centers.

    It is true that IT tends to centralize control - and it is also true that in the Windows world larger organizations have no other reasonable choice because decentralizing control is simply too expensive both in terms of support and in terms of the "security" risks inherent in any PC use.

    However, how a Unix/Sun Ray data center treats its users depends on its managers, not the hardware. You can centralize both control and processing (and most people do, because that's how they've been trained), but you don't have to..

    What you can do, instead, is centralize processing while decentralizing control.

    Remember: the business costs and usage constraints imposed by the 1970s IBM data center; costs and constraints that are now being re-invented and re-applied in big organization Windows environments, are artifacts of cultures, costs, and software limits which simply don't apply in the Unix/Sun Ray world.

    In other words, you can get this effect: but it indicates managerial incompetence with respect to the technology and is not a necessary consequence of the technology.

  6. it can't handle video conferencing, movies, sound

    Yes, it can.

  7. everything costs more - support people, hardware, software

    Quite the reverse: if you've got a thousand desktops, anything you need for any significant chunk of them will cost less to implement on Unix/Sun Ray than on any other environment.

    The people side of this argument is particularly compelling. It's true that for every good Unix sysadmin you can hire you'll get ten or more MCSE style applicants hireable in a Windows world - and that the sysadmin will cost you at least a third more than the Windows people. On the other hand, appropriate staffing ratios for Windows are much higher than for Unix: so for a thousand desktops you'll probably need about 20 IT FTEs for Windows versus 4 or 5 for Unix - and one of those would really be an understudy and holiday fill-in kept on in case someone else gets hit by a bus - or, worse: a spousal demand requiring off-net travel.

  8. It's no good for graphics intensive processing or any other application requiring lots of desktop processing.

    This is true: Sun Ray is best suited to a shared processor environment and performance limited by bandwidth to the server.

    There are, however, two things to note about this:

    • first this is a consequence of the implementation, not the computing model. Sun's long gone NeWS sent PostScript to the terminal and was ideally suited to collaborative engineering because bandwidth requirements were only marginally affected by imaging complexity.

    • second it's only true for a fairly narrow range of requirements in which the display graphics computations significantly outweigh the back-end calculation and/or data access requirements.

      If, for example, your application relies on a grid for the back end calculations then there's a scaling point on the computation above which giving every user a Sun Ray and depending on a central imaging server will provide cheaper and faster access to data than doing display on dedicated workstations.

      This is outside most people's experience - but consider the application of this idea to something as pedestrian as e-mail processing. Give 50 people access to Microsoft Exchange on a Xeon via desktop computers and they'll get one or two pieces of mail well before colleagues using Sun Rays on a 5220 T2 server will. Make that 5000 pieces of email, however, and the Sun Ray users will get much better performance than the PC users.

So what's the bottom line? most of the more widely cited negatives for Sun Rays are pure nonsense. Sun Rays are not the right answer for a hobbyist who wants to play games, surf the web, and pretend to program - but for large organizations the negatives simply don't hold up - and we haven't looked at the positives at all yet.

(Note: I'm "off-net" until Sunday (a victim of spousal abuse!)) and won't be able to respond until then. Meanwhile Sun's Craig Bender - Mr. Thinguy - will be responding in defense of the Sun Ray. )

Topics: Storage, CXO, IT Employment, Software, Oracle, Operating Systems, Mobility, Laptops, Hardware, Data Centers, Windows

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  • Interesting, but ignores the fact that Sun Ray is proprietary protocol

    An interesting summary and provides a good foundation for any discussion relating to thin client solutions or Server Based Computing as a whole.

    However, it was not pointed out that Sun Ray utilizes a proprietary protocol and locks customers into a single solution.

    There are an emerging number of companies (I have familiarity with IGEL Technology but there are others) that enable the choice of backend, Citrix, Microsoft, VMware, Ericom, X11 and open source solutions such as NoMachine.

    These companies allow their users to invest in a technology that suits them now and gives them the confidence that they can take advantage of the latest developments (E.g. Virtual PC) without compromising their investment in end devices.

    As a suggestion, why not expand the article to look at the whole PC replacement market?
    • Not Really

      Okay. The SunRay protocol is proprietary but most of the companies you listed also ship proprietary protocols for thin client solutions and all of them are vying for you to buy their hardware and software solutions.

      A SunRay connects to any Sparc/X86 server that supports Solaris, Redhat Linux or Novell Linux. From that point on you can do ANYTHING. Present a full screen Citrix ICA client, RDP Client, VMWare session using VDI, a web browser, Java Desktop, Gnome, Enlighten, any application or window manager you want. The options are really unlimited.

      The SunRay solution offers the best flexibility as you are not limited to what other thin clients choose to give you on the unit.

      SunRay units do not run software, they are simply a portal into your back end software infrastructure. With the added benefit of session roaming, it is hard to argue against the
      flexibility and practicality of SunRay.
  • And what was not said in the article

    I'm a Sun employee and already using a SunRay for many years. When the SunRay was rolled out within Sun we did a replacement of Solaris based Desktops in our office. Less maintenance, Less power usage, Less system noice (SunRay has no running disc, nor fan to cool the system).And when it breaks down (not seen a broken SunRay in all the years I'm using one), just unplug the cables, put a new one on the table and plug the cables back in, wait 30 seconds and your back to work (no technical skills needed to do this kind of replacement). Now I'm one of the many lucky people using a SunRay from home. The day I switched of my Desktop at home I noticed that I could hear the birds singing outside my house instead of the noice of the Desktop (all quiet).

    The other thing which must be said is the fact that the SunRay lets you use a badge for authentication and keeps your login session connected. So, pulling your badge from the SunRay you sit behind, walk to another SunRay on a different department, insert your badge and there is your session back at the letter you were just typing (session mibility !). This work even between the SunRay at home and the SunRay in the office. I pull my badge from the SunRay, drive to the office, put my badge in a SunRay and there is my session.

    So, now I'll need to stop (you probably noticed my enthusiasm on this subject),

    If you want to learn more about the SunRay, visit

    • telecommuting with Sun Ray...

      How good is your home internet connection?
      Erik Engbrecht
      • telcommuting - Comcast standard 6Mbps/384Kbps

        Hi --

        I'm also a Sun employee using SunRay at home... I have the standard Comcast 6Mbps down /384Kbps up package. It's shared with a home PC and a couple of laptops and the SunRay works great..

      • telecommuting with Sun Ray

        I'm probably the longest-standing long-range user of Sun Ray on the planet, having done this for about 5 years now (I'm in the Sun Ray development group, so I'll admit up-front that my view is certainly biased :). My server is 3000 miles away from my home, and I use my Sun Ray full time. When I moved here, I unboxed my Sun Ray, plugged it in, and was connected to work within a matter of minutes.

        My latency is 90-120 ms to my server. My BW is 8M/256K but the Sun Ray only uses a tiny fraction of that. It is more sensitive to latency, so if latency approaches 300ms (it never does, for me or for most users), it can become frustrating to use. That said, the type of use greatly affects your tolerance for QoS. There was (maybe still is) a Call Center in Mumbai, India which was computer-free, using Sun Rays to connect to servers in Texas. They must have had pretty horrific latency (that pesky speed of light! :), but it worked for them.

        As for reliability, I've probably had less than 48 hours of outage from my ISP in the last several years. And that includes working right through Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma, which passed over my house (it helps to have utility lines buried :).
    • And what was not said in the article

      I have gone all the way as one other dissappointed respondent and couldn't be happier. I have 4 sunrays in the house and probably 4-6 sessions running all the time...with flash etc.

      CPU and memory usage is hardly ever above 1 pct on my Dell 830 server (in the basement) with Solaris 10 installed. I also have one of the sunrays on a 40" flatscreen TV and like watching pic of the family on that (not that high resolution actually 13xx times ??) Have added wireless bridge and Logitech keyboard mouse...will now try a small media type keyboard...

      It's super stable and your are never offline...

      nicolas olszowski
  • We don't need no stinkin GRID

    [If, for example, your application relies on a <b>grid</b> for the back end calculations...]
    Thus illustrates the largest problem with the DumbRay. (Background: I used a SunRay at work and bought a Sun server and SunRays for home. Never mind the broken ones floating around on eBay... I wanted to have a computer in every room of the house and use them for streaming video. The DumbRay1 was ill suited for this purpose so they sit on the shelf unused)
    Sun makes NO MONEY off of horizontally-scaled solutions. Their money comes from larger, many many CPU boxes - which are tailor made for DumbRays. Having 30,000 users that can go from one dR to another (with a $25 Java card - ouch!) and keep the same session, usually means using a few large servers (not many generic Linux boxes).
    The benefits of grid computing are that you can utilize unused CPU cycles from many computers. This makes grid computing "almost free", and it is well suited for major number crunching. But if you replace all of your computers with DumbRays - where do you run the grid? Ummm, Ahhh, Well, ... You could BUY some expensive Sun Servers to run that stuff on! Ah HA! The true modus operendi behind this.
    Roger Ramjet
    • Huh?

      (Disclaimer - I work for Sun)

      Sun Ray 1 did MPEG 2 video extremely well when using a MPEG 2 player such as show me TV. MPEG 2 licensing proved to be extremely expensive and the format never really caught on. Blame MPEG, blame AVI, whatever. Outside of that Sun Rays were never really sold as multimedia devices. The world changed and there is business needs now for multimedia. We recognize that and our next release of software will support MPEG v4 and VC-1 decoding capabilities directly on Sun Ray 2 hardware.

      Regarding your grid comments, perhaps you only dealt with Sales people. Sun engineers always recommend a horizontal architecture for Sun Ray. As far as Sun not making money off of this type of architecture, I'd like to know how you came to that conclusion. Sure there is higher margin in huge boxes, but the cost per seat on those types of servers makes ROI impossible not to mention the danger of having all your eggs in one basket. We have plenty of customers that use Sun Rays to access sessions on something other than Sun servers.
      • What is a grid?

        Where I work, we use UNIX workstations for CAD/CAM/CAE work. Since HP bailed out, only Sun makes them anymore. Anywho, we set up a grid on these workstations to run FEA. This works well (since the users are accustomed to NOT rebooting their boxes). The grid does its job - using CPU cycles that would otherwise be wasted.

        The dR strategy is to replace all of the workstations with DumbRays, and do all of the CCC work on the server. This would take a pretty good size computer considering the CPU requirements (and graphics horsepower), so I don't think some beige Linux box would do (or a bunch of them either). So there you go - say 100 workstations @$3000 replaced with a $500k-$1M server.

        NOW you STILL need to get your FEA analysis done, so what do you do? You can't put dR's on the grid, and the main CCC server(s) are pretty busy themselves. This means that you have to REPLACE those CPU cycles with NEW boxes. Since you pretty much used 100 workstations at 80% of the time (counting off hours), you would need 80 workstation equivalents to run your FEA.

        I think you can see how this cost can skyrocket since running the grid was essentially free. Now do you understand my point?
        Roger Ramjet
        • And the point is

          Thin client is not right for every situation. If you had a very efficient grid and everyone was happy than was folly to change right? Not sure why you insist on not calling the Sun Ray by its proper name though. Makes you argument less compelling.
          • DumbRay and M$ Windoze

            I'm an equal opportunity curmudgeon!

            I jumped on Murph's reference to a grid and showed that using _Rays actually can cost a lot more in that architecture. In fact, grid is what "cloud computing" and Sun's N1 stuff uses (the grid software we used was from Sun). Grid is the future - as long as you can get programmers to make software "gridable" (less difficult than getting developers to utilize CMT like Niagra).

            My own architecture that I push is a distributed one. Every machine has the same configuration (*NIX OSes) - desktop and server. If you need a more powerful box - buy one! It fits right in and "spins" right up (look mom, no hands!). There is no "Disaster Recovery" and no need for backup (for system areas). All you have to do is assign a role to a computer and "spin it up".

            This is also called "Autonomics" - more precisely "Self-configuration". It is achievable and having an actual computer at someone's desk is ALWAYS "better" than a _Ray. It makes for one heck of a Grid system too.
            Roger Ramjet
          • Murph's fault

            Murph markets them a "Smart Displays" and invites parody.
            Erik Engbrecht
      • I am curious about a couple issues.

        I work for a small company that uses AutoCAD quite a bit. Can this system handle apps like this? And at what size is this a cost effective solution? It does seem to require more maintenence on the sever side and not much on the client side. I have seen the client box at Sun but not the four screen setup.
        Mac Hosehead
      • ISP's?

        What would stop an ISP providing Sun Ray 2?s along with internet access, email service and data storage to private and business customers?

        For the usual home / small business stuff.

        Like the call centre mentioned, but with more multimedia.

        Could save a lot of tech support.

        And make Murph very happy.

        Can you connect a printer to one?
        Microphone and speakers - VOIP?

        Businesses that are larger and / or into a lot of engineering or media processing might side with Roger. But others might like to save hassle.

        Businesses, and private customers who do a lot of computing might like to have copies of their own data. But not need this at every seat.

        (And why hasn?t Erik told us that

        " ? MPEG v4 and VC-1 decoding capabilities directly on Sun Ray 2 hardware"

        means it isn?t a dumb terminal?!)
        • That's why we don't call them dumb

          Yes you can connect a printer to one, even a USB mass storage device.

          Microphone and Speakers? Check. VOIP, well, that's a different issue that involves latency as well as since there isn't specialized DSP hardware in the Sun Ray, Voice can take it's toll on a processor. Take a look at your desktop next time you are on a skype call and multiply that by the number of users. You can however check out what Mitel is doing by putting a Sun Ray in to the base of an IP phone.

          Regarding the decoding, we are using features of the chipsets with small changes to firmware. It's still same zero admin model with a very small RTOS that understands very few things. (Sun Ray has an OS the way your printer has an OS - See: )

          ISP's have long been interested in providing Sun Rays. The problem is that they have zero interest in being system administrators. VDI with rollback/snapshot technology is changing that.
          • Thank you!

            Murph - Take notes on ThinGuy's response.
            Erik Engbrecht
          • Blending the PC and Thin Client

            As I said in my initial post I'm most familair with a company called IGEL, but they provide VOIP from the 'thin' client. They also have a built in smartcard that provides the same flexibility of hot desks that the Sun Ray provide.

            My initial comment relating the Thin Clients though was to state that there are alternatives to Sun Ray (sharing many of th same benefits) that don't lock you into a single server or OS provider. As a consumer of these technologies, surely that is major benefit; feeling free to choose the model that best suits you.

            I just don't understand why people only talk about Sun Ray here - open you eyes and see that there are a number of innovative and (technology) agnostic companies out there.
          • Lock in?

            I think it's you who needs to open their eyes. Read the Solaris, Red Hat, and SuSE HCL's. VMWare ESX as well. Where's the HW or OS lock in? That fact that you mention IGel having the same flexibility as Sun Ray makes it clear that you don't under stand hot desking or what it means to have a stateless thin client. Feel free to read the following:

        • There are smart people here...

 there's no need to sound like a broken record....

          But since you bring it up, not contention isn't with the smart/dumb/average terminal. My contention is that the Sun Ray does local processing using a general purpose CPU and a small OS, contrary to claims that no processing occurs on the client.
          Erik Engbrecht