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Sun 26 Jun 2005 04:00 AM

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Thin thinking for fat clients

Corporate PCs have become increasingly bulky and costly. So IT managers are turning to an old idea for inspiration.

|~|01_thinclient_feature.jpg|~|A thin client device is a modern desktop version of dumb terminals that once accessed mainframes.|~|For Izzat Massoud, IT manager at King Faisal Specialist Hospital (KFSH), monitoring more than 4000 PCs has always been a logistical nightmare. The sheer number of computers that his team has had to support, spread across three locations spanning Riyadh and Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, was proving to be a very daunting task.

“Physically going to the sites, supporting all the clients, upgrading, managing the applications, security issues, and costs in a 24x7 critical hospital environment was a challenge,” Massoud says.

However, Massoud’s dilemma is not unique. On the contrary, a lot of IT managers share the same sentiment. Having to take care of corporate PCs, which they consider bulky, costly and difficult to manage, has locked them into an almost constant battle with the so-called uncontrollable beast.

This has led to escalating costs. Gartner estimates that although the average cost of a typical office desktop is about US$800, the lifetime cost of each device is likely to be nearer US$4000.

As a result, companies that want a way out have turned to an old technology for inspiration — that of network computing, where a thin client device is used to access applications and data that are running on a backend server. A more modern version of dumb terminals that once accessed mainframes, a thin client is a desktop device that looks like a PC but is actually much simpler in nature.

It has no hard disks, very minimal memory or RAM, and does not require a floppy drive or any optical drives — all application processing and storage are done on the server. And because its processing power is sourced from the server, a thin client does not need the latest CPU. In other words, it is just a machine used for input, output and display, where every keystroke or mouse click is transmitted to the server and where relevant server activity is reflected back onto the end user’s monitor.

“The idea of thin client computing is to make sure that we take out the complexity of the end user side,” explains Naim Yazbeck, enterprise sales manager, Citrix Systems Middle East. “Companies have realised that a lot of their costs are coming from supporting, maintaining and managing their end users. We’re trying to make end user management as simple as possible to take out these costs and probably have it invested in more revenue-generating services.”

A thin client computing model, according to advocates of the architecture, promises to deliver reduced administration, lower total cost of ownership, rapid application deployment, greater reliability and security, and improved remote access.

“There is low cost of acquiring a thin client. You can get a thin client for US$400 to US$600, and it can be easily installed in minutes. It’s a low investment,” says Mowafak Kowatly, sales manager, enterprise solutions, Farabi Technologies Middle East.

However, a thin client’s main appeal to IT managers is not so much about its cheaper price compared to a PC but the idea that valuable software and data assets can be removed from the desktop and transferred to the data centre. By doing so, it makes security, manageability and maintenance much more cost- and time-efficient for the IT department.

“The fact that users can’t tinker and can’t play with their PCs but still get the services they need, and the fact that the IT department is now in control and can start doing things like service level agreements, enables IT to add value to the business rather than just be an expensive cost centre,” says Chris Saul, engagement architect, desktop and mobility, Sun Microsystems Southern Europe, Middle East and Africa.

Because everything is centralised, deploying applications and security patches are done at one point of the network rather than on individual sites, adds Kowatly. “You really have to worry about securing one point only — the server and the applications in it. As long as you apply the right fixes, the right firewall and antivirus applications and systems, you are really minimising the risk of having a virus attached to your networks,” Kowatly explains. “You don’t have to secure 500 PCs as long as you can secure one point only.”

Hardware repairs are also almost non-existent, says Junaid Rahman, product manager, workstations and thin clients, HP Middle East. Because thin clients are built with minimal components, the product fails less, Rahman adds.

“From a hardware perspective, there are no mechanical components. That means no fans and no hard drives; nothing there is mechanical. And mechanical components are usually the first to go, such as a hard drive failure, simply because of the fact that mechanical parts get dusty, they wear out and they react to the environment more than other components,” explains Rahman.

According to Rahman, HP’s warranty for its thin client products is also different from PCs. If something goes wrong, the product is immediately replaced rather than repaired. This is primarily due to the more complex design of thin clients. “It’s more difficult to find where the problem may be and our partner will have to de-solder and re-solder parts if ever they attempt to repair the device,” he says.

Saul attests the product is so robust that clients only have to put the device in and forget about it. At Sun, which offers thin clients under the SunRay product line, Saul has seen clients using their thin client devices for more than six years now, and are still looking at using them for the next five or ten years, or probably even more.

“They only need to know that they need to replace it when someone spills coffee on it. The only time you need to upgrade your SunRay is when it becomes a health hazard. When you have lots of people using it, these things tend to become a bit sticky; you might want to get a new keyboard, otherwise it can last for a long time,” Saul explains.

Massoud, who spearheaded the move to a thin client model and has overseen the migration of more than 4700 traditional PCs to thin clients at KFSH, says his logistics headaches are now over. Today, doctors and hospital staff at KFSH can access the medical system, office suites, database, internet and legacy applications located remotely at its Riyadh data centre. They do this through a browser that runs on a barebones PC, which in turn utilises an internet connection of 10Kbits per second of bandwidth per user from a 2Mbits-per-second leased line.

By giving the end users a thin client and moving all the overheads from the clients to the server side, KFSH has reaped a number of benefits, including quick ROI — in just a matter of six to eight months.

The key to this achievement has been were the reduced costs that thin client computing has delivered in terms of reduced management and simpler support. “After deploying thin clients, we can now centrally test, upgrade and publish code without any physical intervention, and all the users can access the centralised application. I have the whole Jeddah hospital network administered by only one person now. Also, support is easy, as an administrator can use session shadowing to see the user screen and support remotely, and we didn’t have to upgrade the bandwidth or buy any new hardware for the implementation,” Massoud elaborates.

However, while a thin client solution seems to offer IT managers the ideal set-up that they have hoped for, there are certain caveats, warns Omar Shihab, senior research analyst at IDC Middle East. First, there is the issue of awareness, or the lack of it, that is causing the slow uptake of the technology in the region, and the reluctance among end users.

“Thin clients are still relatively new as a concept so for a lot of IT managers the value and the ROI are still unclear,” says Shihab. “And at a time when we are seeing IT budgets being cut across a lot of companies, this is going to be a big challenge for thin clients,” he adds.

Vendors agree. While they see a growing interest on the technology, the figures — IDC estimates a 2% growth in the coming years — are still insignificant, compared to what they anticipated when the technology was first introduced.

“Companies here tend to be a bit conservative. Due to the unique features of the region, people don’t tend to think very long term. For thin client to be successful, you have to be willing to understand concepts like TCO and ROI, and plan for five years ahead,” says Saul. “It’s easy and simple to do what everyone else is doing, which is simply to buy fat client PCs, but it takes an IT manager who has a bit of vision and true understanding of the business to adopt a thin client solution.”

Understanding the technology however is superficial compared to the initial outlay that companies have to consider if they decide to migrate to thin clients. “Deployment of such a solution will require a lot of infrastructure change… and changes come at a cost,” says Shihab.

But according to Yazbeck of Citrix, to curb the initial costs there is an alternative to replacing existing desktop PCs.

“If you have already invested hundreds or thousands on PCs, you are not going to replace them tomorrow. However, there is a way for people to deploy a thin client architecture using their existing fat clients,” he says.

That option is called logical thin client, where instead of buying new devices, the IT department takes out all the applications residing on the end users’ machines and connect them to the data centre using a set of protocols, such as Citrix MetaFrame’s independent computing architecture (ICA) protocol or Microsoft’s remote desktop protocol, which is part of Microsoft’s Terminal Services. Eventually, when the desktop PC’s lifecycle is over, companies can decide to invest on a physical thin client or purchase another PC.

That’s what companies like KFSH, Bank Muscat and Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) have done. ADNOC has reused about 600 of its PCs that have reached the end of their lifecycle, as dumb terminals for users accessing the oil company’s application stack.

“The benefits are not just in the cost of savings on assets, but are in terms of extending the lifecycle of assets beyond the prescribed one. With server-based computing you can extend the lifecycle of IT assets up to eight years from the average of three to four years,” says Ali Guidoum, IT division manager of ADNOC Distribution.

The introduction of thin client architecture to the market may have started with a big bang in the mid-1990s — with the likes of Oracle chief executive Larry Ellison and Sun chief executive Scott McNealy predicting the immediate demise of traditional PCs — but it may take a while for it to be deployed in the mainstream. Although cost issues are being addressed, the very fact that they still exist in such an unresolved manner suggests that, compared to client server computing, the thin client model still has some way to go before local companies begin to join early adopters such as KFSH and ADNOC in their masses.

But even if it has failed to maintain the initial momentum, analysts and vendors alike, forecast a growing demand, albeit a gradual one, for the technology.

“Currently, thin client sales sit at approximately 1% share of the total PC market worldwide, although we expect it to reach 2% in the coming years,” says Shihab. “We expect thin clients to gain a larger share within the market, especially with security becoming a big issue.”

Thin client’s biggest selling point is the fact that it can help IT departments deliver a highly reliable seamless experience at a lower cost, and it is this strength that vendors are banking on to boost its presence across different verticals. But as with any revolutionary ideas, user awareness is key.

To get IT managers buying into the technology, they should be made aware of what shedding off the excess fat will do to their companies and what benefits they can reap from keeping their organisations thin.||**||

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