There's new activity in an old space, and the Internet has competitors shouldering each other in an effort to strike first.
The latest take on Internet access and client server computing has the mainframe world to thank for the original idea: “Dumb” terminals were the user interaction device in the beginning (20 years ago). Now, this technology’s latest incarnation is the “thin client.”
Given that this technique is so... well, old, what would motivate an organization to even consider it?
Thin-client vendors have traditionally made the case that you can save on both upfront capital costs and long-term maintenance and support by going with their solution. (More on that momentarily.)
But many users have not been thrilled with the thin-client approach, for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which has been performance compared to an average desktop PC. Thin clients are also at the mercy of the network and susceptible to outages.
On the upside, there are lots of benefits to adopting a thin-client architecture besides the initial low price. With bandwidth costs at all-time lows, network speed is no longer a factor when evaluating remote office solutions. Support and maintenance costs for small, dumb terminals are just a fraction of what it costs to support a typical PC.
The concept of a thin client can keep remote workers inside the firewall, protecting critical corporate computing assets, including proprietary or sensitive information. This works as well for staff as it does for C-level executives.
Thin clients aren’t just a throwback, either. Virtualized desktops represent one of the latest pushes toward a thin-client-type architecture adapted for the Web. Multiple companies have offerings in this space, including Citrix Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CTXS), IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM), Red Hat Inc. (Nasdaq: RHAT), and VMware Inc. (NYSE: VMW), to name a few.
Virtualized desktops rely on high-end servers and fast storage to get the job done. Each user essentially has his or her own personal virtual machine along with its applications and custom settings. The programs typically run on a remote server but could execute on a local machine depending on the capabilities of the hardware.
Examples of how vendors are progressing in this space include VMware’s Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) VMware View product, which combines the vendor’s desktop and server virtualization experience to “deliver desktops as a managed service.” VMware’s Website boldly asserts that you can “reduce the total cost of desktop ownership by 50%.”
Citrix has a long history of remote desktops, including a tight partnership with Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) and a proprietary protocol, ICA (Independent Computing Architecture), running underneath. Citrix’s XenDesktop product is Citrix’s answer to VMware’s VDI offering.
Red Hat’s virtual desktop product is SolidICE, which uses a new open-source protocol, SPICE (Simple Protocol for Independent Computing Environments), that Red Hat hopes will become a new remote desktop standard.
These are just a few highlights of what is proving to be a robust market for thin clients. 2010 should prove to be the year for the rollout of a plethora of large-scale VDI solutions.
It remains to be seen which, if any one, solution will come out on top. But given that thin clients are all about cost savings, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise to see the open-source solutions give the proprietary bunch a run for their money.
— Paul Ferrill has been writing about computers for more than 20 years. He currently serves as CTO for Avionics Test and Analysis Corp. working on multiple DoD projects. You can reach him at email@example.com.