system analyst and adjunct cio business analyst and technical writer

 Home  Who We Help  Services  Approach  Case Studies  Resources  Contacts  About Us


The industry standard for desktop computing is high-powered PCs. They have fast processors, lots of memory and plenty of disk storage. This translates to expensive and bulky. However, the real challenge lies in the area of maintenance and support. Large, complex systems require increasing amounts of care and feeding including backups, virus checks, software updates and repairs. Do today's business workers need all the horsepower provided by these so called "thick clients" sitting on their desktops?

The alternative is to think thin as in thin computing or "thin client". These systems can provide all the functionality of their thick brethren with less bulk and lower cost. And, the transition to a thin computing model can be gradual thus preserving prior investments in hardware and software. The organization can continue to use existing systems, only replacing them as they wear out.

A little background will help.

The computer industry began with large-scale computer systems, mainframes, linked to many "dumb terminals". This was necessary because of the high cost of hardware. As prices dropped and high-speed networks evolved, processing power moved to the desktop PC in the form of several distributed processing models. These arrangements work well most of the time though increasing software complexity has resulted in support problems and high costs in many organizations.

When a desktop PC is connected to a shared resource, it becomes a "thick client" in the sense that it is a client for the services provided by the shared resource. (Shared resources can be file servers, print servers, web servers, etc.). This is where thin clients can help reduce complexity and lower cost. These are not "dumb terminals". In fact, they include plenty of processing power, memory and graphic displays.

So, what does a thin-client network look like? There are three major components: a thin-client server (commonly called a "terminal server"), a fast network, and multiple thin clients. In the simplest sense, a terminal server acts as file server and storage system for the thin clients that usually do not have local hard drives. Many individual users can log into the terminal server and use it simultaneously. All of their desktop settings and personal configurations are loaded from the server. Thin-client implementations depend on a reasonable amount of network bandwidth to be suitable for everyday use. The typical 10/100 ethernet found in most businesses is fine.

Why go to the thin-client model?

There are several clear advantages starting with reduced hardware costs. Thin-client PC's are smaller and simpler than standard desktop systems thus costing less to purchase. They are very low maintenance devices requiring less servicing. The simplicity also results in a longer life because there are fewer components that will become outdated with the rapid advances in technology.

Centralized administration is another major benefit. Desktop configurations can be standardized and maintained in a uniform way. Software updates do not have to be processed across individual desktop computers. Instead, administrators can manage system-wide updates on the terminal server. Providing software updates for many users can be done with one simple installation. When a software problem arises, remote troubleshooting tools make it easier for technicians to identify and resolve the problem without traveling to the user's location.

Desktop portability can be a major benefit in some organizations. Because there is little or no personal data stored on thin-clients, users can open their desktop environment from any thin-client. This makes it possible for employees to move from their offices to conference rooms, other facilities or their homes and open their work environment as if they were sitting at their desks. They become more productive without the hassles of carrying a notebook computer or trying to duplicate environments on home and office systems.

Rapid deployment is a powerful advantage in some operations. For example, a specialty gift vendor may experience a tenfold increase in business around major holidays such as Valentine's Day or Mother's Day. These spikes require rapid expansions of IT infrastructure. Thin clients make such expansions relatively simple and cost effective. Alternatively, thin clients can provide a disaster survival strategy. In the event of a major disaster such as a flood or fire, employees can relocate to another facility and quickly come back online.

Migration to thin-client computing can be gradual.

Thin-client software runs on thick-client PCs thus these older systems can be used until their end of life is reached. Good places to start implementing the thin-client model are wherever desktop computing needs are relatively simple. That is, the mix of software applications in use is relatively static.

Call centers are a great example. These employees usually have specific repetitive tasks spread over large numbers of users. Many times workstations are shared by multiple employees. In a thin-client environment they can log in from any desktop and have access to all the tools they need to do their jobs.

Other examples include, highly mobile professionals such as sales executives; schools systems where computers are shared among students; organizations with many branches and employees who move among the branches; or point-of-sale systems with highly specialized software.

There are several vendors offering thin-client software. The major ones are Microsoft (Windows Terminal Server), Tarantella (Enterprise 3) and Citrix (MetaFrame). There are also open source options such as UltraVNC and rdesktop. On the hardware side, all the major vendors including Dell, HP, IBM and Sun offer thin-client products. Thin-client computing is an excellent option for many organizations. It is a simple and practical approach for anyone seeking a less-volatile PC solution.

Vin D'Amico is Founder and President of DAMICON, your ADJUNCT CIO™. He is an expert in using open source software to increase worker productivity and reduce IT costs.

This article appeared in Vin's monthly Virtual Business column for the IndUS Business Journal in May 2004.

To learn more about how DAMICON can help you run a superior IT shop, please take a look at our ADJUNCT CIO™ Program.

Virtual Business

Virtual Business

This column appears monthly in the IndUS Business Journal.