Network Computers: Still a hard sell

A year or two ago, some people thought the Network Computer (NC) would revolutionize the computer industry, offering an alternative to the PC that could be fielded at a substantially lower cost. While no one today claims that NCs can replace PCs, there does seem to be a market for the systems to augment today's desktop devices.

Vendors have positioned the inexpensive and sturdy NCs as smart terminals for a network environment. Generally, applications and data reside on a server, with the user downloading the software and data only as needed. According to its proponents, this setup improves security because data is not stored locally and makes it easier for organizations to update applications because software remains on the server.

But despite the potential benefits of this architecture, most organizations in the private sector and government have not bought into NCs as a primary computing platform. In particular, many users prefer having storage, software and other resources on a PC.

Some agencies are at least exploring the concept. For example, the Defense Supply Center, a Richmond, Va.-based research and development division of the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), recently tested a mixed NC/PC environment. Despite initially favorable reactions, Kim Raymond, a supervisory computer specialist at the center, remains noncommittal about a future move to NCs. "I am not saying that we will definitely go [with NCs], but we want to explore the potential. Honestly, I don't think it's ready yet for prime time."

A Problem of Definition

Confusion in the marketplace is one reason why the NC has not caught on the way vendors had hoped, analysts said.

About 80 vendors got together in 1996 and defined an NC profile. But the definition was extremely broad, focusing primarily on the availability of a browser and the ability and support for Java. Java is a programming language designed for NC-style computing, in which a client downloads a small application, or applet, from a server to run locally but does not keep that software beyond the immediate use.

The profile "pretty much allows any device to participate," said Steve Sundman, manager of The Santa Cruz Operation Inc.'s government region in Reston, Va.

Some observers refer to the NC as a stripped-down version of the PC— the biggest difference being the lack of internal disk storage or external CD-ROM or disk drives that are typically associated with a PC. NCs often are described as "network appliances," which have some processing power, memory and a monitor but rely largely on the server for most resources.

With NCs "the data and the major applications are all running on a server. PCs, even when they're connected to a network, tend to run the major portion of the application on the desktop," said David Pinckard, vice president and general manager of the Network Displays Division of hardware vendor Tektronix Inc., Beaverton, Ore.

As the market has developed, even the focus on Java support has softened, with a number of vendors pushing other "thin clients" that work much like a Java NC, somewhat clouding the market.

Neil MacDonald, a research director with Gartner Group, Stamford, Conn., said the Java NC is only one of three kinds of Network Computers, along with the Net PC and Microsoft Corp. Windows terminals. Net PCs are manufactured by many PC vendors and include some local storage, but the base units generally are sealed and feature no external drives. With Windows terminals, users with low-end PCs, not NCs, access applications running on Windows NT servers.

NCs essentially have been a boon for all desktop users because they forced PC vendors to address concerns about managing the desktop environment, analysts said.

"Network computers have made vendors wake up and smell the coffee," said Greg Blatnik, an analyst at Zona Research, a Redwood City, Calif., research firm. "Vendors finally got the idea that customers were overwhelmed by the complexity of the desktop and of upgrading it at frequent intervals."

Although Java NC-vendors first raised the issue, all three approaches are designed to ease the cost and energy associated with managing desktop devices. "There's nothing magic about Java," MacDonald said.

The Application Issue

Java does, however, address one critical issue with NCs: the need for applications that might spur the market.

Most traditional Windows applications were not designed to run in the network environment; therefore, the system's performance suffers. While Java applications are intended to run on a wide variety of desktop devices— the platform-independence being a major selling point— Java's server-based application model suits NCs very well.

"At last count there were over 1,200 Java applications," said John Leahy, group manager of government affairs and public relations for Sun Microsystems Federal, McLean, Va. "They span a range from Microsoft desktop to specialized applications."

Although some of the new applications may closely resemble existing Windows applications, others will be developed from scratch. But most industry sources agreed the market likely will not see a simple rewriting of an application such as Microsoft's Word in Java.

Gartner's MacDonald cited the experience of Ottawa, Canada-based Corel Corp., which unsuccessfully attempted to rewrite office automation software in Java. "Rewriting in Java is a recipe for disaster," MacDonald said. "Corel found that out. IBM [Corp.] did it the right way; they found [that] what people want is fast, dynamic functionality."

IBM, which now owns Lotus Development Corp., opted not to rewrite Lotus' SmartSuite office automation in Java but instead to develop a special suite of software specifically for the thin client, said Judith Winkley, program manager for marketing at IBM's Network Computer Division in Selersherst, N.Y. "We studied the consumer community, rebuilt around the customer requirement, put it in Java."

Corel was about halfway through rewriting its software in Java when it realized its mistake, said Steve Mann, director of Open.J engineering at Corel. By simply rewriting the Windows application as it was, the company would have ended up with a "monolithic" software package that would have been hard to download and, in some cases, slower to run than Windows versions, Mann said. "We were not taking advantage of the distributed, cross-platform capabilities of Java. We said, 'This isn't the right approach.' "

Today, Corel's NC applications can be built around the jBridge or Open.J software developers' kits, Mann said. jBridge is designed to deliver Windows applications to thin-client desktops by using Java as a bridging technology. Essentially, these kits make it possible to structure the

processing of an application to fit the requirements of the thin client. Open.J is designed for developing new applications.

While such tools make it possible to run Windows applications in the NC environment, the market likely will develop more in other areas. According to vendors, NCs will be used for applications that involve a limited and well-defined set of processes.

According to Sun's Leahy, NCs should really be a "fixed-function device," in which users need to execute only a limited and well-defined range of processes. "It's for an airline reservation system or a replacement-parts processing application. Can you think why a PC should be at a checkout when an NC could do just as well?"

Other vendors agreed. It seems unlikely that the NC industry will see the kind of cross-market success that developed for PCs, such as office automation.

"We've been looking for that 'megahit,' and it isn't going to happen," said Mike Hoechst, vice president of technology for Oracle Corp.'s Government, Health and Education Division, Bethesda, Md.

Sun and IBM are working to create an operating system for NC, called JavaOS for Business, which the companies said is appropriate for NCs and for thin clients. The companies hope they have created an environment that will optimize applications for the Java environment, resulting in better performance for the end user.

Test Drives

Despite the relatively embryonic state of the market, some federal agencies have tested the NC concept and seen some potential.

For its test, the Defense Supply Center put NCs in kiosks and break rooms for facilities engineers as well as ground and maintenance personnel. "It gave those people access to the same information as those who have desktops," Raymond said. NCs cannot replace PCs, "but a thin client would let you get your mail and access the applications without having to provide a ruggedized system."

Also, the center found support and maintenance with NCs to be simpler than with PCs. "Instead of trouble-shooting on individual desktops, we work on the server," Raymond said. "Support costs are only one advantage...constantly changing out 2,000 computers every time there's a change in an Intel chip is a lot of work."

The FBI sees the potential for deploying NCs as part of the Law Enforcement Online project, which the FBI is developing in conjunction with Louisiana State University and Science Applications International Corp.

LEO began in 1995, when LSU approached the FBI with a proposal for a bulletin board for law enforcement personnel nationwide. Because of user input, it quickly evolved into something more. "They wanted a system for law enforcement only, [which was] user friendly, secure and free," said Gary Garner, a special agent with the FBI. "We've accomplished that. Today, it's really [America Online] for law enforcement."

LEO provides e-mail, newsgroups, chat and World Wide Web publishing broken down by various components, such as behavioral science, forensics and firearms. With servers in Virginia, technical support in Louisiana and thousands of users throughout the United States, the system is a highly distributed environment. "Users are on individual accounts," Garner explained. "You can install on a notebook at home, [on] a computer on your desk or on multiple computers."

NCs appear to be an appropriate choice for LEO, said Doug Haydon, the LEO program manager at SAIC. "[Because] we're using Web technology, we're using a very thin client," Haydon said. "Given the bandwidth limitations [of dial-up], it seems appropriate."

The Navy saw enough advantage in NCs to buy them for their Gynecology Clinic near San Diego. The clinic, affiliated with the Naval Medical Center, uses NCs for standard office applications, such as word processing and e-mail, and for unique medical applications including patient records and prescription ordering. The Navy is reportedly saving more than $1,000 per machine per year by using IBM Network Stations rather than stand-alone devices.

In general, the government is approaching NCs cautiously, perhaps even more cautiously than the commercial

sector. "We found that it works well in limited deployment," Raymond said. "But that doesn't translate well to 3,000 users. It may simply not be robust enough. That's why R&D needs to take a good look at it to see if it will work well for the enterprise as a whole."

Lazar is a free-lance writer based in Tenafly, N.J. He can be reached at [email protected]


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