The skinny on thin-client technology

The plummeting prices of PCs has made it easier for federal IT managers to put fast, new computers on their users' desks. But Microsoft Corp., Citrix Systems Inc. and other vendors are presenting thin-client computing as an alternative to PCs that can reduce the overhead of maintaining desktop machines while mitigating concerns about security, data sharing and Year 2000 compliance.

In many ways, thin-client computing harks back to the days of putting dumb terminals on users' desks, with the applications and data running from a central server. But the somewhat demeaning term "dumb terminal" has been replaced by the sexier "thin client." Terminal vendors include Key Tronic Corp., Boundless Technologies Inc., Network Computing Devices Inc. and Wyse Technology Inc.

As with most recycled ideas, though, this plan puts a new spin on an old concept. Users will not have to re-learn how to use ancient text-based terminals. Instead, they can run the same Microsoft Windows programs with which they have become comfortable and familiar.

Vendors of thin clients believe their solutions can reduce the cost of managing and maintaining PCs - estimated to run as high as $6,000 a year - while simplifying management chores and eliminating the trouble of maintaining and upgrading users' PCs. "This is the next generation of computing," said Martin Parlette, director of professional services for Vertical Software Inc., a Beltsville, Md., integrator.

Greg Blatnick, vice president of Zona Research Inc., Redwood City, Calif., said most end users no longer measure their worth by the power on their desktops - a truth recognized by proponents of thin clients. "Today your computing boundaries are established by how much data you can access, not by how fast you can process it or how much you can store," Blatnick said.

Despite its advantages, agencies have not yet jumped into thin-client computing with both feet. Many are investigating the potential benefits of the technology, and a few have reported successful installations in pockets of their operations. But the substantial upfront investment required to move to a thin-client architecture and the technology's inability to meet the needs of power users has stalled its progress.

For example, the Bureau of Prisons is evaluating thin-client technology and likes what it sees so far, said Mike Strother, a computer specialist at the bureau. Strother said he has found that configuration and maintenance are easier under the thin-client model, but the bureau has not yet decided to switch over.

Back to the Future

The buzz on thin-client computing began in 1995 with the introduction of Citrix's MetaFrame server software, which mimics the old mainframe/terminal model but does so with modern software. MetaFrame runs on Windows NT 4.0 and runs regular Windows programs. The idea gained momentum last year when Microsoft licensed it and introduced its own version, Windows NT Server, Terminal Server Edition. Terminal Server acts as a module on the Windows NT Server 4.0 operating system, like the other modules such as the Database Server Edition.

Despite Microsoft's announcement, Blatnick said 1998 "was kind of a disappointment for the whole industry." He said the market only began to move in the second half of the year, but he predicted that the U.S. market for commercial thin-client devices will grow from 650,000 units shipped in 1998 to 5.5 million units in 2000.

Daily recitations of Microsoft's strong-arm tactics with competitors coming from the company's antitrust trial in Washington may have caused the conspiracy-minded to worry about Microsoft's true plans for its license until Terminal Server actually shipped.

Michael Barr, Microsoft's government account representative, acknowledged that the wait for his company's introduction of Terminal Server created uncertainty in the marketplace. "[Customers] were unsure of the future of the technology, since it was based on Microsoft technology but was not adopted by Microsoft," Barr said.

Microsoft's introduction of Windows NT 4.0 spurred interest because customers had been waiting for the capability to use Citrix's MetaFrame software on the new operating system, rather than on NT 3.51. "Citrix had a Windows NT 4.0 version ready," said Christopher Kessler, senior Unix/

Windows NT analyst for the lab at Science Applications International Corp. that tested thin-client technology for the U.S. Special Operations Command. "A lot of people postponed deployment because they wanted the 4.0 version."

End users can display and use thin client-based applications on their desktop PCs. But because the server is doing all the work, that PC does not need to be very powerful. This provides the option of leaving old, otherwise obsolete PCs on desks well past their expiration dates, rather than buying a mint's worth of the latest Intel Corp. processor.

Still, old machines can be troublesome, and the other option is to put new terminals on users' desks. These devices are designed to provide enough power to run the client software needed to display the server-based applications without complicating the terminals' simple design. Consequently, the terminals tend not to have trouble-prone hard disk drives, security-fraught floppy drives or even many input/output ports.

"You don't have moving parts at the desktop," said Dawn Cannaday, director of marketing for LAN Solutions Inc., a Fairfax, Va., integrator. "You don't have hard disk crashes; you don't have security being breached; and you don't have illegal software being introduced."

Not So Dumb

In a thin-client environment, the level of computing power on each desktop may vary between end users. In many cases, terminal vendors let administrators enable or disable certain functions depending on the needs of the particular user while retaining centralized control.

"We are not looking to strike the death knell of the PC," said Jim O'Connor, marketing agent for Key Tronic. "We are looking to augment them. Terminals are very application-specific."

A security benefit from this strategy is that all potentially sensitive data resides on the server, so there is none on the harder-to-secure client workstations. "If you have an embassy in an area where there may be an uprising, you can pull the hard drive out of the server and bolt out of there in a hurry," Cannaday said.

Steve Kaplan, senior computer security consultant for STG Inc., a contractor for the State Department, said thin clients reduce security risks in several areas. "This type of system can frustrate traditional attacks which occur through the clients, [such as] war dialing, data exposure and migration, and typical Trojan Horses, just to name a few," he said.

Key Tronic's ClienTerm device is attractive for security-oriented applications at federal agencies, according to the company, because of an optional fingerprint or smart card scanner built into the device, which combines the terminal hardware into the keyboard to save space on desktops.

James Marsala, product manager for Citrix, said administrators must look at the end user's need for devices such as disk drives and local printers when deciding whether to use a PC or dumb terminal and determining how to configure them. In practice, most clients are PCs. "Over 80 percent of the installed base is Windows desktop PCs running the client software," he said.

Some agencies are finding that thin clients come in handy when sharing applications and data with outside agencies and field offices through dial-up connections. Users need not concern themselves with the speed of the connection or the power of their PCs because the server does all the heavy lifting.

For example, the U.S. Geological Survey's Water Resources Division, Pearl, Miss., often shares its data with state and local government agencies with unknown IT resources, said Charles O'Hara, a member of the New Technology Advisory Committee at USGS. O'Hara said USGS cannot assume that its state and federal colleagues have desktop systems capable of running USGS systems. But these agencies can run the client software for NT Terminal Server, which will let them use applications on the USGS' server.

Thin-client technology also addresses Year 2000 concerns, because Windows NT and all recent Windows applications are Year 2000-compliant. IT managers do not have to worry about making sure all of their PCs are compliant, because the server, its operating system and applications are Year 2000-ready.

And even if users need Year 2000 patches - or any software upgrades - thin clients simplify the procedure, because only the server needs to be updated to affect all associated clients. This, of course, requires a stout server, but it is more cost-effective to upgrade a single server than to upgrade many PCs.

It also gives agencies a bit of fault tolerance. If the server is properly protected with redundant disk arrays and backup power, data will not be lost as the result of hard disk failures or power outages. If the terminals lose power, users simply log back on when power is restored and resume working in their applications where they left off.

Not for the Power Hungry

Despite the advantages of thin clients, many users prefer to retain their familiar PCs. Thin-client computing is not for everyone," Cannaday said. "It is not for your power users."

Some of those who have committed to thin clients would like to see some improvements in future versions. O'Hara said he would like to see a change in the limited number of display colors supported at the client. While O'Hara said such a change would help USGS, the current limitation of 256 colors "doesn't preclude us from doing high-end [geographic information system] or remote sensing applications," he said.

Lt. Jim Hewitt, officer in charge of the network control center at Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark., said he looked at thin clients but decided not to convert to server-based applications because of the upfront costs. "In the long run, [thin clients] would probably be cheaper, but it was the initial cost we couldn't afford," he said. "So we just stayed with what we had."

O'Hara said he ran into a similar funding problem but found creative ways to get around it. "I did a lot of this through innovative leasing," he said. "We didn't want to put all of our dollars into things facing near-term obsolescence."

--Carney is a free-lance writer based in Herndon, Va.

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AT A GLANCE

STATUS: Agencies throughout government are investigating the potential benefits of thin clients, and a few have successfully installed the technology. Others have been deterred by the significant upfront investment needed to set up a thin-client architecture.

ISSUES: Thin clients can save agencies money and time by reducing the need for frequent upgrades of desktop systems. They also address concerns related to security, data sharing and Year 2000 compliance. But the technology limits the capabilities of end users and is not recommended for high-end desktop applications.

OUTLOOK: Questionable. Observers agree that thin clients offer potential benefits, and analysts expect huge growth in the commercial market, but agencies appear hesitant to buy into the technology at this time.

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