5 reasons thin clients deserve a fresh look

Cost savings, security and technology advances make approach more viable

Thin-client computing has been around for years, and at various times, vendors have declared that thin is in.

The thin-client approach involves diskless desktop computers that pass off most processing and administrative chores to a centralized server. The underlying premise of thin clients is that fewer moving parts and no local storage reduce administrative costs and boost security.

Many organizations have bought into the technology, but performance concerns and budget issues have kept others on the sidelines. Thin-client computing may now deserve another look, given proven financial benefits, continuing security concerns and recent technology twists.

1. The proof is in: Running thin clients can cost less
Lower operating costs have been a central selling point for thin clients since they arrived on the market. With years of use behind it, the technology has the track record to prove its marketing pitch.

York County, Pa., for example, saves $80,000 annually because it uses thin-client technology. The deployment consists of Citrix Technology’s Citrix Presentation Server software and Hewlett-Packard’s  Compaq t5000 thin-client devices. The county first deployed thin-client technology in 2001.

“We’ve realized a huge savings through the course of our deployment of thin clients,” said Jeffery Shiflett, York County’s assistant director of information technologies.

He said the county, which previously used desktops, has saved on technology upgrades and ongoing support costs. Because there’s less to break, there’s also less to repair, Shiflett said. He said the organization’s thin-client investment paid for itself in less than two years.

But don’t expect to save much on the initial hardware investment. In some cases, the price of a thin client isn’t much different from a desktop PC’s.

“The greatest savings comes from the reduction in touch labor required for administration and troubleshooting,” said Col. Rusty Lingenfelter, chief of the Information Infrastructure Integration Division in the Army Chief Information Officer’s Office.

The Army has used thin-client solutions to access multiple classified networks from one machine, Lingenfelter said. Traditionally, Army users who frequently accessed several networks needed to have multiple PCs on their desks.

2. Server-side virtualization tools create new options
The increasing use of server virtualization meshes well with thin-client computing and provides another reason to investigate the technology, industry executives say. Virtualization techniques mask the physical location of IT resources — applications, servers and storage devices, for example — from the users’ perspective. The goal is to improve resource use and ease administration.

Greg Spata, director of Accenture’s server-based computing practice, said thin-client computing requires virtualization as the initial step. An organization may take business applications off a desktop PC, but a thin-client device won’t work if Microsoft Office, for example, still needs to run locally.

“You must virtualize everything…and, only after that, replace PCs with thin-client devices,” Spata said.

Until relatively recently, the only option was application virtualization, which requires administrators to remove client software and local application data from desktop PCs and place those components on a central server.

Spata calls that approach process isolation. He said products such as Citrix’s Presentation Server, Microsoft’s Windows Server 2003 Terminal Services and Sun Microsystems’ Secure Global Desktop fit that category.

That form of virtualization isn’t the best choice for all applications, Spata said. In a software development shop, for example, some processor-intensive routines could impact other users of the shared system.

During the past 15 months, other virtualization models have emerged to address a broader set of applications. He cited operating system isolation technologies from companies such as EMC’s VMware business unit and hardware isolation products from suppliers such as ClearCube Technology and Cyclades.

VMware products partition servers into virtual machines that can each run a different operating system and application. Microsoft’s Virtual Server provides a similar function. Spata said ClearCube and Cyclades products address situations in which a CPU-hogging application would bog down a server that shares resources.

“Now with three different models, there’s a very good chance to find a model that works for each of your applications,” Spata said.

That situation could expand opportunities for thin-client deployment.

“Virtualization is changing the gambit of how people look at thin clients and server-based computing,” said Diana Wong, director of product marketing at Neoware, a maker of thin-client devices.

But Javier Vasquez, infrastructure architect at Microsoft Federal, said virtualization methods vary in maturity. Tools for managing virtual machines that clients remotely connect to are still two to three years from maturity.

3. Recent lapses underscore an ongoing need for better security
Reports of missing or stolen laptops have rekindled interest in thin clients, industry executives say. The thin-client philosophy of maintaining applications and data on a central server boosts security.

Security ranks among the top reasons customers examine server-based computing technology, said Spata, who views the approach as the most secure way to deploy an application. When all of an application resides on the server, “there’s never any cache data on the client and no application binary for someone to take and reverse engineer,” he said.

“From a security perspective, [thin client] is a very good architecture,” said Ed Hammersla, chief operating officer at Trusted Computer Solutions. He estimated that 8,000 to 12,000 thin-clients have been acquired through the Defense Department Intelligence Information System Trusted Workstation contract. Trusted Computer Solutions collaborates with Sun on the initiative.

“Moving data off of the end user device to a secure server facility greatly reduces the risk of theft of sensitive and/or classified data,” Lingenfelter said. “Furthermore, thin clients provide the Army with the ability to limit access to peripheral devices, greatly reducing the risk of introducing viruses and worms to the network. This makes thin clients an extremely attractive option for classified network connectivity.”

Shiflett said the combination of Citrix and thin clients helps York County meet the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act’s security requirements.  “There’s no data footprint on the device itself,” he said.

4. New packages to choose
Thin clients traditionally take the form of a desktop PC, but recent offerings provide a mobile option.

In October 2006, two King of Prussia, Pa., companies introduced thin-client laptops. Devon IT announced its SafeBook product, which runs Windows XP Embedded (XPe). Pricing starts at $799. In addition, Neoware introduced its m100 thin-client laptop. The company offers a Linux model with a retail price of $759 and a Windows XPe model that sells for $799.

Both companies emphasize the data security angle.

Wong said the m100 would have no value to thieves. “It would probably be a paper weight to them,” she said.

Wong said government and health care organizations have shown the greatest interest in the product. 

5. 64-bit horsepower fuels efficiency
Wider use of 64-bit computing may also make thin-client and server-based computing more attractive.

Spata said organizations that have evaluated application architectures have found the scalability of Web-based platforms to far exceed that of server-based approaches. However, the dam is about to break as customers move into the 64-bit era, he added.

Citrix, IBM and IMG Americas released benchmark data in June 2006 on the 64-bit version of Citrix Presentation Server running SAP’s graphical user interface application. The test showed that the 64-bit Presentation Server could support 500 concurrent users per server compared with 72 concurrent users for the 32-bit version of the product.

“That’s the kind of Web-based scalability that you really hoped to see [with server-based computing] but could never quite get there,” Spata said.

At Citrix, 10 percent of the customer base runs the company’s 64-bit technology in a production environment, and 75 percent of the company’s customers plan to adopt 64-bit gear in the next 12 months, said Sumit Dhawan, director of product management at Citrix’s Virtualization Systems Group.

Dhawan said the company’s 64-bit technology permits greater user density per server, letting customers manage with fewer servers and reducing cost.

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