Thin clients seem to be a perennial runner-up to full-featured desktops, but we think the time is right to stop thinking "what if?" and to get rid of those clunky desktop PCs.
Thin clients take the data processing power away from the desktop box and transfer it to the server. Provided you have a reliable switched 100Mbps network, the majority of light data tasks such as word processing, spreadsheets, e-mail, Web browsing, point of sale (POS), CRM, accounting, and stock management/control can easily be handled by thin clients. Let's face it, the majority of business desktop use is with these or similar applications.
There are several main server-based applications currently used to deploy thin client environments. Sun Solaris, Microsoft Windows Terminal Services (based on the RDP protocol) and Citrix environments (based on the ICA protocol) on a Windows or Unix-based server or server farm.
"So what?" I hear you say, desktop PC hardware can now be bought cheaply enough that the thin client model of saving on cheaper hardware over desktop PC machines is virtually redundant. This is true; however, when you consider some of the benefits of this model, you may in fact find that some of the overall savings far outweigh some of the negative impressions this type of computing has hanging over it. It's not the be all and end all to desktop client computing, however it is potentially an area that many businesses--and in particular IT departments--are overlooking as a "too-foreign" technology to what they are traditionally comfortable with when going out to tender for new desktops.
With the advent of really powerful and relatively inexpensive servers (see last month's feature for more information on suitably powerful machines), thin client computing should be included as a possible path for your company to explore when looking at your next replacement or roll out.
Benefits of going thin
Software licensing is always the bane of large organisations, particularly auditing and keeping track of what is out there. This can be much more easily controlled via the use of a thin client environment. Say you deploy a server and publish several applications to use throughout the network. While you still need to buy a licence for each user of a particular application, you can limit the number of instances that the application can be launched. If you have 400 thin clients out there and only 250 licenses of a published application, you can set parameters to deny clients running the application after the 250th concurrent session has been run. Seeing as most enterprises don't have every employee always running the application simultaneously, savings can be made by not having to buy one licence for each employee--rather just enough concurrent licenses to create a pool large enough to create a workable ratio of users per licenses.
Another handy feature is the ability to control how many instances of a particular application can be launched by any particular user and, even one step further, create groups who have access to certain published applications but not others. For example, the sales department employees have access to Word, the Internet, CRM, and sales applications, whereas the warehouse only has access to the inventory system and the Internet.
The next time there is a version update of a particular application, all the administrator needs to do is install/publish it on the server and it is done. The benefit of this is that the standard operating environment can be virtually created on the server itself and is readily accessible by all the clients in a dynamic way. It certainly beats having to update 1500 desktops out in the field with 1500 new versions of an application to licence whenever the decision has been made to migrate.
Service and support
Support costs are the black hole of most companies' IT departments and the area the finger is pointed to when costs need cutting. Much emphasis is placed on streamlining support and service, and we've all heard horror stories about failed outsourcing contracts that blew out by 500 percent.
Thin clients, if deployed correctly, have the benefit of reducing these types of cost from the very basic premise that each and every one of the clients can all be managed remotely and indeed each of the clients is so light in configuration that not much can really go wrong on the desktop end, short of a physical device failure in which case one or more "spare" replacement thin clients can be kept by the IT departments for quick replacement.
Lower support costs
Another service saving is in desktop support. People being people will always attract computer viruses and worms and wreak any other amount of havoc on systems they are let loose on. However most thin client terminals are capable of being locked down. For a start, most don't have traditional optical or mechanical disk drive units instead relying on Ethernet or serial connections to get their start on working life and then relying on a very small device image stored on flash memory (one of the largest flash memory sizes available installed in a thin client is 256MB--a little larger than your average digital camera, with the normal thin client memory average around 32MB).
This memory can be locked down to read only, therefore any digital nasties trying to affect the operating system or I/O subsystem while they run in the RAM would have no way of writing to the ROM and therefore could easily be fixed by rebooting the unit. The very nature of the thin clients' operating environment means that a standard flash image could be created for the whole organisation or even department by department and then deployed via a push method, remotely sending the image to the client from the server without needing to have a technician physically at the machine. Saves a lot of technicians from wearing out their desert boots traipsing around the building.
Security concerns can be controlled and policies enhanced by locking down the systems' OS. However, removing the users' ability to write/store or copy data onto the local machine also has another benefit that comes in the form of physical data security. If all the data is stored on the storage array in the server room(s) then should a client machine or two "disappear", the thief would not have stolen any crucial information from your enterprise.
The last obvious cost saving is breaking the upgrade cycle. As your applications and clients increase in size and utilisation, you will need to upgrade your servers. However your thin clients should never technicially need to change, providing you start off on the right foot. Thin clients can run in the field for substantially longer than two or three years, which is the normal duty cycle of a PC. With fewer moving parts, they should run for a lot longer before needing maintenance/servicing or replacement.
So while the physical thin client machines may be similarly priced to low-end PCs, the cost savings from their operation means that the total cost of ownership--if deployed correctly in the right environment--can be quite significant.
The thin client we received from Sun had a built-in smart card reader and Sun has gone to a lot of trouble to make the smart cards part of its thin client solution. We think this is a very important feature that will definitely attract many potential purchasers. It has several benefits such as:
- Access control. Banks, POS apps, and some call centres (particularly those involved with billing systems) have been using smart cards for access control to systems. Each level of user has the access rights programmed into their cards, and when they need to approve something that is above their level of control, they require a supervisor to insert their card and type the command. This allows logging and reporting and is far better than simple typed codes.
- Security. This is an obvious one. The card can also double as photographic employee identification, proximity card, and magnetic card. This card should not be taken as a replacement for passwords; it should be used in conjunction with them--cards can always be lost or stolen.
- User Portability. This is one of the handiest features and the thin client environment is perfect for it. Imagine a public customer service department or a public loan department and a client who needs to be refered to a supervisor or manager for a problem resolution. Instead of having to get the manager and bringing them to the terminal and into the public space, you can simply remove the operator card and take the card and the clients to a private office with a terminal in which the card can be inserted and the exact same information can be immediately displayed (and also where the dispute can be then resolved behind closed doors).