Analysts: Thin clients remain niche

Vendors such as HP and Citrix, are attempting to bring back the thin client model, which analysts say remains niche for now although enterprise acceptance is growing.
Written by Victoria Ho, Contributor

SINGAPORE--Hewlett-Packard and Citrix claim virtualization is the key to thin clients--a viewpoint analysts agree with, to an extent.

The two vendors are currently showcasing a thin-client portfolio at a regional roadshow, organized by IDC, touting the message that desktop virtualization will help complete the thin-client puzzle the industry had struggled to complete for years.

Thin clients are low-cost, lean computers that depend on a central server for computational work. They are points of access to the central server, and often run only Web browsers or remote software to serve this purpose.

Sun Microsystems was a strong proponent of the early thin-client wave. But this market saw lackluster sales as enterprises opted for PCs that offered advantages such as more computing power to run multimedia software, and could function without needing to be connected to a network.

HP's Allen Tiffany, business unit manager of remote client solutions, personal systems group, Asia-Pacific and Japan, said Wednesday during the roadshow's Singapore leg, virtualization technology has largely solved these issues.

"The thin client is only as good as what it can connect to. Virtualization gives the backend more agility and power to support the clients," Tiffany told ZDNet Asia, during a demonstration of a video file being streamed to a thin client.

Virtualization also gives IT administrators the flexibility to perform maintenance tasks, without disrupting users, by migrating clients live from one host to another, he said.

Yaj Malik, Asean area vice president at Citrix, said a strong driver of adoption is compliance and security. Companies turn to a thin-client model to retain their intellectual property on central servers, and lower the risk of physical data loss, by keeping the machines as lean as possible.

Malik added that a company involved in an acquisition can theoretically have the additional branches running closely and quickly to its compliance and security standards, by deploying mirrored PCs through desktop virtualization.

Thin on the way, but niche for now
HP and Citrix hope such features will help coax enterprises over to thin clients, but analysts agree deployment will likely stay limited for now.

Manish Bahl, manager of custom research at Springboard Research, said in an e-mail interview: "Right now, we will see companies embrace thin clients for specific and niche needs where a thin client is the best and most cost-effective approach.

"The key thing related to business adoption of thin clients would be having a business situation where thin clients can win out over traditional PCs."

But the current financial crisis will likely put a dampener on new sign-ups for now, said Bahl. "Most companies are going to be leveraging their existing infrastructure, including existing PCs," he said. "I think we will see more interest in [thin clients], but actual broad-based acceptance and implementation will definitely take more time."

Reuben Tan, senior manager of personal systems, IDC Asia-Pacific, also referred to the financial crisis. He said in a phone interview with ZDNet Asia, the interest seen from markets in the region such as India, China, Hong Kong and Singapore, will not likely lead to actual implementation.

"Before the financial crisis, there was strong interest from the financial services industry to try something new, but now everything is pushed back," Tan said. "The industry will be limited to just buying replacement PCs for the time being."

However, the IDC analyst was optimistic about the future of thin clients. He said early implementations lacked the infrastructure agility to support "seamless usage", which resulted in thin clients being marginalized to "very specific applications" such as call center and data-entry environments.

However, recent developments on the application delivery front were encouraging, he said. "The ability to stream an entire desktop--the OS and corresponding applications--opens the door to a range of users from different verticals that would have previously not wanted to get on board," said Tan.

"I wouldn't say thin clients would become mainstream though. There is still a lot of resistance from segments which would want full control of data on localized storage," he said.

However, Tan said, with server virtualization catching on, "a hybrid environment" that mixes thin and fat clients "is very likely" to happen.

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