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Mon 17 Mar 2008 04:00 AM

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Slimming down

Thin clients offer a viable alternative to traditional PCs especially with recent advances in technology. Nevertheless, enterprises will need to consider and plan appropriately before making the move.

Thin clients offer a viable alternative to traditional PCs especially with recent advances in technology. Nevertheless, enterprises will need to consider and plan appropriately before making the move.

Thin clients and server based computing are moving from enterprise back burners to see record adoption in the Middle East over the last couple of years, claim most regional vendors and industry experts.

Thin clients have represented for a long time and represent today the only real mature alternative to traditional PCs.

"Thin clients and server based computing have been growing much faster, especially in the EMEA and APAC regions, where they are still relatively new. They have represented for a long time and represent today the only real mature alternative to traditional PCs," says Federica Troni, principal research analyst at Gartner.

Recent advances in technology have enabled enterprises to cash in on thin client technology which has long remained in the shadow of traditional desktops.

"The biggest advance that has happened in the last couple of years is virtualisation technology. Sun has been working quite closely with vendors like VMWare. And what that has enabled us to do with our thin client solution is deliver a full native version of Windows XP or Vista to our customers because the virtualisation allows us to run a full desktop image on virtualised servers in the backend, in the datacentre. That has made a dramatic change to the way thin client solutions are viewed by the end user," says Michael Geisler, head of software sales for the Gulf region at Sun Microsystems.

Thin clients are also increasingly becoming capable of adapting to the needs of a modern enterprise, as vendors build in more elements of mobility into their solutions.

"HP is launching thin client mobility products as well as specialised thin clients for rough environments such as in warehouses. Enterprises concerned about data security or theft will have the greatest interest in HP mobile thin client. Since data will reside on the server, the theft of a notebook will have much less impact than loosing a traditional notebook with gigabytes of data on it," says Yan Bergeron, category manager for workstations and thin clients at HP Middle East.

Apart from taking on technologies that befit a solution of the new age, thin clients retain most of the intial advantages it offered organisations.

"There is a promise of reducing TCO and when it is implemented in the right circumstances this is certainly true. There is scope for large TCO savings although users should bear in mind that the TCO saving that you can obtain from server based computing depend on your starting situation. If you start from an unmanaged or manually managed situation, obviously your savings will be very significant, even in the range of 40%," says Troni.

Running all applications over the network as it does, thin clients offer firms the option of consolidating their resources in the datacentre. This includes everything from servers to storage and, according to vendors, this can benefit firms in terms of better utilisation of processing power, reduced energy consumption as well as effective security.

By incorporating new advances and still boasting all of its old advantages, thin client solutions offer a stronger and more resourceful solution for Middle East enterprises.

For all its strengths though, enterprises should be careful while implementing thin clients, because the solution is simply not suitable for every company.
There are some firms which are perfect fits and others for which thin clients can never deliver true benefits.

Thin and sassy

Many IT managers continue to shy away from thin clients due to the perception that users will find it restrictive and may resent the change. However, the true change in thin clients is felt inside the enterprise datacentre.

Thin clients and server based computing have been growing very fast in recent years.

An investment in thin client solutions means additional capital in servers, storage, capacity and network reliability for the organisation in question. For this reason alone, enterprises need to be sure that the solution fits their needs.

"Firms should define the list of tasks or applications that are used and performed. They should assess the need for local storage at the user's desk, assess if the applications can be run from a server and what would happen in the case of network failure," says HP's Bergeron.

For graphic intensive apps, server-based computing cannot be the solution though vendos like Sun advice that PCs and thin clients do not have to be mutually exclusive and the enterprise can continue to use PCs for certain apps while running the majority on the servers.

This does mean that firms would need to do a clear user assessment in the initial phase to identify employees who are ready to make the move to thin clients and those who cannot due to the apps they work on or their relative mobility and need for flexibility.

Within the datacentre, firms would also need to make room for extra servers and storage, as well as hiring extra hands to handle the management tasks.

"From the administrative point of view nothing really changes. It is fundamentally still Windows running on a virtual environment rather than a physical device. You might have to get extra skills around VMWare or the virtualisation solution but the administration of desktops does not change," says Geisler.

According to him, most of Sun's mid to large customers use blade servers when moving to thin clients, where ten blades or one blade centre can help an organisation handle the needs of 1000 users.

"By adding a second blade centre you have fault tolerance. If one blade fails and some users cannot suddenly access their systems we can switch over to another blade in another blade centre," says Geisler.

The increased power saving will not necessitate much changes in existing cooling solutions inside the datacentre, according to some vendors.

However, some others disagree with this stating that power savings need not be dramatic and enterprises would still need to update or overhaul their cooling systems when moving to thin clients.

"Enterprises certainly need to plan their infrastructure as much as they plan the end user device or client. Actually the backbone becomes the most important part. One of the typical myths of server based computing are that many vendors claiming it to be a greener option than traditional PCs. You might have a slight reduction in power consumption however you are simply moving your processing power from one place to another - so it is not really reducing substantially. Certainly it is not enough to declare that thin clients are a lot greener than normal PCs," states Troni.

Getting thinner

With all its advantages, thin clients still are an expensive option for enterprises in terms of initial capital.
The equipment change that a full-fledged shift to thin clients and server based computing entails puts off quite a few enterprises even before they start.

Many of them choose to take a middle path, implementing architectures that mimic thin clients and offer some of the solution's advantages.

Thin clients and PCs are not mutually exclusive.

Troni explains: "From our experience with Gartner clients most large organisations have some implementation of server based computing - but they do tend to be practical - setup to deliver one or two apps rather than true server based computing delivering the entire desktop to users. The percentages of organisations that do that are much smaller - much much smaller. The majority of thin client deployments that we see among our clients use traditional PCs as thin client devices."

John Coulston, marketing manager for Dell in the region also states that companies can hope to achieve much of the benefits that thin clients offer through alternate solutions, such as tightly locked down desktops.

"It should be noticed that there are a range of new options for client architectures that allow organisations to choose from; so it is no longer a choice between PC and thin clients. For instance, virtual hosted desktops - VMWare has a product called VDI, Citrix has a similar product. These are all alternatives that have some of the advantages of server based computing. But they do not imply such a radical migration as server based computing does," says Troni.

Obviously, the middle path will entail less initial investment for the firm in question though it promises less in return.

Thin clients in its unadulterated form or the easier middle path, enterprises will still need to remember that in an increasingly integrated world, thin clients or server based computing is just like any other technology choice - and all promises surrounding it need to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Before the moveNME presents a quick checklist that enterprises should consider before investing in thin clients:

1. Are you ready? - is your organisation an ideal candidate for thin clients? Do a large majority of your employees work on network based apps? Are too many of them involved in graphics-intensive work?

2. Is your network robust? - do you have a reliable network to host the entire desktop? Are there any upgrades you need? Would you be able to get extra bandwidth from your network if necessary?

3. Do you need to upgrade your datacentre? - how many more servers and how much more in storage capacity will you need in your datacentre? What kind of additional cooling will you need if at all? Will you need more room space or do you have capacity to expand?

4. Can you manage everything? - do you have adequate system management in place? If not, what additional elements do you need in terms of software, hardware and people skills?

5. When can you do a pilot? - is your vendor open to conducting a proof of concept? Where in the organisation can you do the pilot? What capacity additions do you need for the pilot?

6. Are your employees ready? - will your users resent the change to thin clients? Do you have a plan for handling it? Have you arranged for dedicated training sessions to familiarise employees with the new devices?

7. Can you support mobility? - do you have the elements in place to offer desktop images and support to your travelling executives? Do you want them on thin clients or would you rather integrate them from a different platform?

8. Are you being cost-effective? - is the thin client liable to give you RoI? In what time frame are you likely to see investments returned? Is the timescale comfortable to you considering your organisation's growth targets?

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