Sun's new desktop is thinnest of the thin

Sun is taking another crack at the network computing market with the launch of its Sun Ray network appliance.

Touting the device as the thinnest of thin clients the appliance is a stateless device and has no operating system. While previous thin clients have been powered by thin operating systems like JavaOS or Windows CE, with Sun Ray all system code resides on a server.

"We said 17 years ago that the 'network is the computer', today we're really delivering on that vision," said Sun president and chief operating officer Ed Zander.

"Users never need to upgrade, and never need to administer another desktop again," Zander said.

"The same device that we're using here in 1999 will still be painting pixels in 2010."

In what is somewhat of a departure from its Java strategy, the technology behind Sun Ray is a proprietary protocol similar to the Citrix ICA and X-Windows protocols.

Zander admitted there had been "issues" with Sun's previous attempts at network computers but said with this device the company had reached the "logical extreme" of thin client computing.

It is also attempting to revolutionise the computing licensing model by offering users a Star Ray client, complete with its free StarOffice productivity suite, for only $10 a client per month.

"Users can now access all their Microsoft Office files without having to pay the Microsoft tax," Zander said.

Sun has also implemented its "Hot Desk" technology into the Sun Ray appliance, which enables users to store their personal identity on a smart card. The user inserts their smart card into the reader and it automatically brings up the user session as it was left behind, regardless of which terminal is being used.

This enables the desktop to "follow the user", Zander said.

While Sun has a vision of a plethora of Sun Ray-like appliances which fit into all manner of situations, including the home, right now it is targeting the devices at a number of well-suited verticals like education and government where the low upfront and administration costs are attractive. It is also targeting application environments like ERP and customer management systems.

Today, Sun officials admit that bandwidth is a significant limitation to the widespread adoption of Sun Ray devices because, unlike similar technologies such as that of Citrix, Sun Ray "burns bandwidth" limiting its use in the wide area.

"We're betting that bandwidth is not going to be a problem in the near future," said Zander.

At the moment the protocols and technologies used by Sun Ray are proprietary and are restricted to the Solaris environment, but Sun is going to open up the code for free to third-party developers in an attempt to establish it as a standard.

Meanwhile, Sun also announced yesterday the launch of its Dot Com consulting services, aiming to help users "dot com" enable their businesses using Sun technologies.

Philip Sim travelled to New York as a guest of Sun Microsystems

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