Thin-client desktops: Not defunct yet

Thin-client computing has been around for a decade, but the rising costs of updating software and installing security patches on networked personal computers is sparking renewed interest in the technology, according to users and industry experts.

Plus, the need to throttle security threats from both outside and within organizations is prompting information technology managers to focus even more on managing desktops.

Unlike traditional PCs, thin-client desktop systems do not have local storage capabilities and rely on servers to provide processing power. As a result, they generally are considered to have a much lower cost of ownership than PCs. They can also limit desktop users' ability to steal data from other machines or inadvertently introduce viruses.

Analysts at market research firm IDC report that the demand for thin clients grew at about 12 percent in 2003, which is about four times faster than the rate for PCs. The market is still just a fraction of that for PCs, with only about 1.5 million units shipped worldwide last year, but IDC analysts expect that number to more than double by 2007 to 3.5 million units.

A main catalyst for the move to thin clients is many organizations' adoption of Linux and other open-system computing tools. Low-cost thin clients are considered ideal for such environments, and Linux developers have provided broad support for thin-client applications.

IDC analysts say Linux took as much as 20 percent of the global thin-client market in 2003, with a 43 percent year-over-year growth in the fourth quarter alone.

In the commercial sector, companies are fundamentally shifting toward server-centric systems, with officials often using thin clients, according to IDC analysts.

That outlook has drawn traditional PC vendors such as Dell Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. into the thin-client business, joining traditional vendors such as Wyse Technology Inc. and Neoware Systems Inc.

Wyse Technology, a leading thin-client vendor, started a group dedicated to federal government business just three years ago and has seen exponential growth in the use of thin clients since then, said Dave Bachman, the company's federal sales manager.

"In government, data security and network viruses are major drivers for this because of the time expended in patching" desktop PCs, he said. "It's a huge concern, and we can show the total cost of ownership for PCs over a three-year period is much higher [than for thin clients] because of this."

With PCs, IT managers must make sure all software patches from companies such as Microsoft Corp. are installed on each desktop system, which can cost thousands of dollars for a large agency. With a server-centric, thin-client architecture, only the servers have to be patched.

Some agency officials are also increasingly worried about the potential for sensitive data to be copied to desktop PCs and then removed or lost, Bachman said. Because of that, officials at agencies such as the Defense Department, national laboratories and intelligence organizations are thinking of replacing at least some PCs with thin clients.

"They want to go to centralized backup and control of their data and to purposely limit the user," Bachman said.

This concept of centralized processing goes back to the early days of the mainframe, with green-screen "dumb" terminals taking the place of thin clients. Many organizations are using thin-client systems to replace their dumb terminals.

That was the case for Illinois' Cook County Circuit Court, for example. Several years ago, county officials wanted to get rid of thousands of green-screen terminals because they were too slow and couldn't be used to run any of the newer Microsoft applications or to provide e-mail service for the court's 2,300 employees.

Neoware's new thin-client system has also cut out most of the maintenance involved with the old terminals.

"We literally had employees in a van who went from one end of the county to the other seeing to problems with the dumb terminals," said Craig Wimberly, the circuit court's chief information officer. "With [thin-client] remote management software, we can now solve most of those problems from a central location over the county's wide-area network."

Kenosha, Wis., has never used traditional PCs to perform the bulk of its data-

processing work, according to Ruth Schall, the city's management information systems director.

In the early 1990s, city officials moved from a mainframe and dumb terminal system to a Unix server system and X terminals

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