Thin clients vs. Smart Displays

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.

TOPICS: Oracle, Hardware

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.


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

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Groundhog blog

    ZZZzzzzzz... ZZZzzzzz.... ZZZzzzzz......
    • You can sleep but knowing this stuff could help keep you employed

      Dietrich T. Schmitz, ~ Your Linux Advocate
      • RE: Thin clients vs. Smart Displays

        when I was starting in IT at the end of the .com boom some old timers were saying that some of my interests (like Linux) were a waste of time and only Solaris or HP-UX type sysadmin jobs would secure the future unless I wanted to join the imminent w2k "revolution".

        I looked at these inflexable idiots who had clearly reached their station in life and realised that I did not want to be them, they were and still are twats!
        Linux is my full time career now and all that dumb advise which I had a got was wrong all along. Christ I'd crap myself if Solaris was my mainstay now :-D. I ignored them because I did my own personal sums and in '99 I knew that Linux could only get bigger and when expertise was needed and people were looking around I would be there and although some folks found this hysterically funny I was always serious.

        I am no Ingo Molnar but I do have a good feel for the future and Sun Ray is not it. A good niche solution sure but if you think these types of implementations are going to be soooo numerous that it will be a big money spinner than step away from the crack pipe.

        I am awake enough to keep myself employed thank you very much. It helps knowing when the time is infact right to ...ZZZzzzzzz... ZZZzz....

        Let me remind you of why it's not good to bet on Rudy:

        "The bottom line is that it's a no brainer:
        if SCO gets to court unimpeded by its own
        lawyers, they'll win easily."

        "Judge K's ruling was based on a completely
        separate section - it doesn't stand the
        giggle test. never mind a legal one."

        -Rudy de Haas

        Nuff said!
        • I wish you had written this in the first place

          Thanks. You have an interesting background.
          Dietrich T. Schmitz, ~ Your Linux Advocate
      • RE: Thin clients vs. Smart Displays


        " -Rudy de Haas " ?!?! Gosh... Dutchies everywhere!!!!

        ; -)
      • Old timers


        I believe you ran into the Solaris bigots - misguided sysadmins with the right idea and the exact wrong way to express it. They did just as much damage to Sun's rep as their sales droids and middle manglement. After these guys spoke up - NO ONE wanted to use Sun, just to shut these guys up! Just another straw on the UNIX camel's back.

        As for "old timers" insisting on UNIX - their skills transferred to Linux (so they weren't THAT misguided). Now Linux is only slightly less reliable than Solaris - so it's hard to argue for a change.
        Roger Ramjet
  • We are still intrenched in a severe Economic slump

    The technologies you cover are essential for security and cost reduction.

    We are rolling out thin client across our organization (Health Care) and the benefits of Thin Client are compelling.

    So, I pay attention when Murph writes these kinds of stories.

    Very important stuff.
    Dietrich T. Schmitz, ~ Your Linux Advocate
    • RE: Thin clients vs. Smart Displays

      @Dietrich T. Schmitz, Your Linux Advocate <br><br>Undoubtedly....<br><br>My problem with this series from Murph is that he refuses to realize that Sun has zero competitive advantage in this sphere. Why do you think no one uses them? There are far better faster, cheaper, easier, more flexible, and more reliable solutions. He would have realized that had he compared the ridiculous cost of 5.2 million plus to serve out 2400 desktops. I'm sure that agency will know it was money well spent the first time he tells their accountants that they can't run Excel, because we decided on Solaris as a client OS. Especially when they could have paid half the price for x86 based hardware, Windows a decent VDI broker, and some PCoIP embedded Samsung monitors.
      • Symbolism


        I choose to look past and see the symbolism.
        He chose the topic for good reason. Thin Client IS a burgeoning market.

        And so any story about it raises awareness.
        Dietrich T. Schmitz, ~ Your Linux Advocate
      • Can't see the forest for the trees

        @civikminded <br><br>Did it ever occur to you that you are too close to the situation to be objective? There is no reason why a Solaris/DumbRay solution can't satisfy every criteria you have. It can even run Windoze (via Citrix for example). Cheap is relative - since this solution could eliminate ALL customer-side sysadmins. If the thing breaks - the replacement plan is the same as printer toner. Take it to the closet, unbox a new one, put the old one in the box and label it as "broken", then take the new one back to your desk. No one can mistake the wires/plugs in the back. No call to the help desk, no sysadmin to come "help" you.
        Roger Ramjet
  • unfortunately....

    this sort of architecture doesn't really work with the 90% of typical users, who are at home, have intermittent connections, and sometimes like to shut the internet off.

    Sun's demise is that it doesn't have a way to offer the same advantages to the casual user, who buy far more machines on a regular basis, where fashion is everything, keeping up with the jones's is important, and don't make decisions based on the bottom line.

    This carries over into the workplace, where suddenly they've gone from being master of the universe to another cog in the wheel, impotent, unable to do the simplest task without calling IT (like put on a new program, "just because they wanted to try it out").

    The sun ray does make sense in many applications, although if it has a port for a usb dongle, then the security issue is no longer valid, (although I guess what goes on it could be controlled by the center).

    No redundancy, and a reliance on the network are the weakest points of the whole scheme.
    sparkle farkle
    • Right, but backwards

      @sparkle farkle

      About 90% of business users can use Sun ray, the remainder tend to have needs best met via macs or windows. (and you can run Sun ray from home, it's just not a hobbyist thing.)

      Remember, I'm not talking about the home hobby community - the people who play computers for the same reason their grandfathers became experts on radios and, later, stereos. Of course they're a declining minority now, but before iDevices you could see their point: it was fun, some of it made sense, and lots of people believed in it - just like my dad believed in phonograph records right up to the end,
      • RE: Thin clients vs. Smart Displays


        90% can also use tablets and sharp sticks, but I don't think I'd recommend it.

        The apple doesn't fall far from the tree Rudy - looks like you've just substituted your father's obsession with vinyl with an obsession with Sun. I really don' t think your father wrote newspaper columns to convince people to throw away their CDs and go back to vinyl.

        When you're losing your head and everyone else is calm, then perhaps you've misunderstood the situation ;-)
      • decentralization of the workplace

        as far as I have read, more and more people are expected to work from home, which begs the question, how much bandwidth is necessary to run an application from a 'smart terminal' and how much slower would you expect it to run without "a fiber network" locally available.<br><br>I can see the advantage of big iron, and centralist control, but I can't see the advantage of not being able to operate the machine or program due to an internet outage. I think that sun could update it's model to include machines with "intermittent" internet. Java is there for the client side (what a nightmare os that would make), so what needs to be written is a spooling program, really an os, which uses the resources of a regular PC. They are really cheap these days if you haven't noticed.
        sparkle farkle
      • decentralization of the workplace

        @sparkle farkle

        As usual "it depends" - on what kind of work you're talking about.

        Most professional work-from home- e.g. Lawyers working on filings- needs docs from the office servers. If the internet connection dies, so does server access and if you just let them have all the docs you need in advance then sooner or later you'll have the joy of a lost or stolen laptop embarrasing the firm. This kind of thing is a choice among risks: And, in general, when you compare the expected loss from internet failure vs security failure, the latter dominates.

        Most actual work from home these days follows some form of the call center model. Ten or twelve years ago I wrote a call center implementation plan based on using video conferencing via X or Sun Ray from a centralized system to tie people working from their homes into communities (mainly to address turn-over, training, and recruitment cost while building customer loyalty through contact with one person.). Tests showed that a company owned ADSL switch placed into the suburb where the recruiting was to be done enabled reliable, high quality, video operation
        between employees concurrently with the data center application - basically about 4MB/sec bi-directional was fine for about a 9,000 foot cable run radius from the switch.

        The client didn't buy into this - but today's call center devolution to homes shows them to have been wrong and the required tech is still there, still good, and still a lot cheaper than the alternatives.
      • 4 MB/s...???

        @murph_z I have fios at the house here, and had the fastest downloads ever, and that was at about 1.5MB/sec. The reality is the internet generally runs at around 700kb/s on a good day, and I've even had the connection here run at 5 or 600 kbs on a bad day. My dsl line was barely able to make 300 kbs. Doesn't sound good. As for most of the work being "call center" I don't think so. A lot of banking, design, and cad type work is being done from home. Not that sun rays like that kind of thing 80 miles from the server. I don't even want to start about the internet in Canada.....
        sparkle farkle
      • SDSL

        @sparkle <br><br>You can run sun Ray at 1.5mbits/sec <br>-- read this:<br><a href="" target="_blank" rel="nofollow"></a><br>---<br>but for the from-home-call-center test we used an sdsl switch on the local telco exchange(s). <br><br>The difference is that this didn't cross network peering points - the reason you pay for 10Mbits/sec and get 1.5 at best isn't that your local link is slow, it's that your link shares one or more constricted peering points with other local subscribers.
      • RE: Thin clients vs. Smart Displays


        I have to say that I've been hard on Murph, but looking back on some of these posts I think we are essentially in agreement on concept, just not in execution.

        Thin clients, be it Sun Ray, or one of the newer VDI protocols like HDX or PCoIP are optimized to work without very much bandwidth at all. For example, HDX only transmits graphics primitives, sort of like RDP does. This allows for a very good desktop experience with very limited bandwidth.

        Bandwidth is a total non-issue for thin client (or 'smart display') adoption.
  • RE: Thin clients vs. Smart Displays

    You claim that a Sun Ray is just like a monitor and a video card... and How does that not make it a 'thin client' vs. being a 'fat client'?
    To put in bluntly, monitor technology really hasn't advanced all that much in the last 35+ years. The PLATO systems had smart displays, networking and touch screens, back in 1975. Of course, I may be dating myself.
  • A new century and the same old scam

    Every five years the thin client scam comes around.

    Rudy's solution is to rename them ;-)

    And I am dating myself as I used Plato too and what a turkey that turned out to be ;-)