Thin clients break corporate barrier

First hyped, then derided, server-centric thin clients are starting to catch on as once-wary users relax and start to make room for the technology. That's partly because of support from Microsoft and Intel, as well as a steady stream of new offerings, some of which can be found this week at Comdex '98 in Las Vegas.

"I don't think [thin clients] are the silver bullet, but they have a place, and we are seeing good results with respect to stability, manageability and cost-effectiveness," said Steven Breaux, managing director of strategic systems planning and support at Federal Express in Memphis.

With that in mind, a once-waffling FedEx plans to roll out about 2500 Windows-based terminals by May to run ground-based operations.

Breaux said the company chose thin clients over full-fledged PCs because pilot testing showed they were much easier to support than their complex PC counterparts.

The Bellagio Hotel will host an event today that is expected to feature not only enterprise clustered server systems from Dell Computer, but also thin clients, which are used to run its front-desk operations and gambling pits.

At Coors Brewing senior business analyst Nick Sherwood said the company is using thin-client software to give remote PC users faster, reliable access to centrally located data - something that was impossible over a speed-hampered wide-are network.

Added benefits are easier manageability and the flexibility to let users do local processing when they need to, Sherwood added.

Also testing the waters are large retailers such as Circuit City Stores and Kmart as well as some airlines and financial institutions.

Such interest is a big change from a year ago, when users took a more cautious approach to thin clients because they were tied to immature operating systems such as JavaOS. When Wintel got involved, users were more comfortable.

Bill Bayer, manager of information technology at Komatsu Canada, said he thinks thin clients were given the cold shoulder after an initial period of extreme hype because of negative messages coming from Intel and Microsoft - neither of which were part of the equation at the time.

"When users saw they could run their Windows applications, it really opened their eyes," Bayer said. "I think thin clients are going to be pervasive, and they are working really well for us for everything but extreme power users."

Since the initial market launch last year, the definition of thin client has broadened from a promising Java-centric network computer to mean any device that runs applications from a server - making it centrally manageable and locally simplistic. Added to the mix this June, and now part of the thin client model, is Microsoft's Windows Terminal Server, a multi-user version of NT and Windows-based terminals that harness all their processing power from a server.

Windows-based terminals are important, according to users and analysts, because unlike early network computers, they were specifically designed to serve the huge installed base of Windows users. Through add-on software, they also offer access to non-Windows applications and are server-centric. The rub, of course, is that users are still tied to the Windows operating system. But they don't seem to mind.

In fact, IDC expects Windows-based terminals will outnumber network computers by 2 to 1 within the next few years, said Eileen O'Brien, an analyst at IDC, a sister company to ComputerWorld's publisher IDG. That's because Windows is just about everywhere, O'Brien said.

IDC also is predicting that thin-client shipments will double from this year to next, with about 507,000 being shipped by the end of this year and more than 1 million next year. Contributing to the growth: availability of hardware and software for thin-client architecture, growing comfort as more users adopt the technology and a better sense of where it's best used.

The network computer's early and biggest stumbling block was the idea that corporate users would have to pull the plug on years of investment and infrastructure to adopt them, negating any cost savings they would bring to the table.

"What happened was, early on, thin clients became associated with network computing in general, with the Java initiative and with having to embrace a whole new set applications," said Audrey Apfel, an analyst at Gartner Group.

Users and analysts also said the ability to run a wide range of applications and the expectation that distributed management costs will be lowered at the same time has changed that perception.

For example, using Windows Terminal Server and an add-on from Citrix Systems, dubbed MetaFrame, users can access everything from Unix applications to PC applications to mainframe applications.

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