Will SunRay do a JavaStation?

Sun hopes its second thin-client effort will fare better than its first -- the JavaStation flop.

Welcome to Sun Microsystems' vision for thin-client computing, Version 2.0.

The company will announce on Wednesday a completely new architecture that places all administration, performance and application burdens on Solaris servers. Applications are zapped to an inexpensive, stateless device on users' desktops.

Sounds familiar, right?

It should. This is Sun's second attempt at displacing PCs as the primary vehicle to access the Internet and productivity applications. The first, the JavaStation, was a complete flop because it failed to deliver the performance, applications and ease of use that Sun promised.

"We had the right idea. We had the right goals," says Gene Banman, vice president and general manager of the information appliance and WebTop group at Sun. "But we had to do execution of the code at the [JavaStation] desktop. Anytime you do that, there's an OS there that has to be managed. In the new model, there is no OS to be managed whatsoever."

The new architecture consists of three elements -- the Sun Ray 1 information appliance, Hot Desk technology that connects the device to a Solaris server and enables some degree of interoperability between Solaris and Windows NT applications, and Sun Ray enterprise server software, which manages applications and resources.

The new architecture aims to replace Windows-based PCs with Sun devices and small workgroup servers that are not technically on a LAN.

"This takes all the [systems] in a workgroup off the LAN and onto a specialised interconnect between the appliance and the server," Banman says. "It reduces the number of nodes in a network."

One of the benefits, according to Banman, is that performance is not a function of what's on the desktop but rather of the server, since the device has dedicated server bandwidth. He added that the device really only performs one function, which is to display pixels. The devices use smartcards to identify users and access their specific centrally stored settings and applications.

"When a user logs in with a smartcard, the card just tells the server where to send the pixels. There is no local processing," Banman says, adding that users can plug the smartcard into any Sun Ray 1 device. He says users have to reconfigure their wiring closets for Category 5 cabling and install 100M-bps Ethernet switches between the servers.

Sun's lease price for the Sun Ray 1 device is $9.99 (£6.20) a month per user for five years, or $499 list price. For workgroups of 50 to 200 persons, a setup that includes installation, the Sun Ray 1 appliance, a workgroup server, Ethernet switch, Sun Ray server software and the StarOffice suite, the cost is about $30 per month per appliance for five years.

The $499 price tag may seem like deja-vu to those who balked at the $699 price of the original network computer, the JavaStation. "The reason for the price is that we just invented the technology," says Dwayne Northcutt, chief technologist for the Sun division. "This is server-class performance. This is not something you compare to an eMachines [system]."

The Hot Desk software will cost between $250 and $2500 per server, depending on configuration. Sun plans to license the Hot Desk protocol to third parties that are interested in building Hot Desk appliances.