Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Dumb Article on Dumb Terminals

There was an article today in the Wall Street Journal called Dumb Terminals Can Be a Smart Move (this is one of the very few articles that the paper makes available for free on their web site). As is typical of most computer articles in newspapers the technical information is, to be kind, incomplete.

For starters, this long article fails to mention Citrix, for a long time the dominant player in this field. Citrix is to thin client computing as Xerox is to copiers. Also omitted is any mention of the server versions of Windows and the specific feature (terminal services) that enables thin client computing. It is impossible to give the reader a reasonable understanding of the subject of thin client computing without some discussion of the server side impact.

The article gives the impression that dumb terminals are cheaper than PCs which is not always true. Back a few years ago when I was more familiar with this subject, many dumb terminals were more expensive than new low end computers. This is still true today. The HP model pictured with the article is $200 - sort of. HP says this price is "applicable to the lowest-price configuration for this model; prices for this model with the features displayed here will vary." Wyse doesn't list prices on their web site and only sells through resellers - a sure sign that it's expensive. Neoware is up-front about their prices. Their Linux based models range from $260 to $1,100, their WindowsCE models range from $360 to $1,050. They also sell Windows XP embedded models for $480 to $1,150 and thin client notebooks start at $750, roughly the same starting price as real notebook computers.

Much of the article is about how "dumb terminals" are cheaper, but it avoids the server side costs, which are huge. The software to run applications remotely is expensive and complicated to set up. The techies in charge need a lot of training to get up to speed (a hidden cost). And then there is the hardware cost for very high end servers.

There are downsides to thin client computing that are not mentioned in the article.

For one, network access to a server running your applications is critical. Should there be a networking problem, employees do the crossword puzzle until it's fixed. Also, just like with mainframes, many users compete for resources on a single computer. If the machine is not configured right, or suffers a problem or is hogged by one user doing something resource intensive, multiple users feel the pain. In fact, the whole idea of thin clients is a throwback to the mainframe model of computing - with both its pros and cons.

Another downside, user psychology, is mentioned in the article, but there is more to say about it. Resistance to thin clients comes from users that can no longer install software. Instead they can be limited to running just approved corporate applications. This sounds great for security and for keeping software up to date (think Windows Update) but if a user wants or needs other applications, they have to fight with the computer techies to get approval. It's easy to see how this may not go over well.

Artists are another problem not mentioned. Thin clients are not appropriate for people dealing with photographs, videos or any type of graphic work. These applications require high resolution, lots of colors, fast response time and lots of cpu horsepower.

The article quotes a Gartner employee as saying: "It's a paradox. People want their cake and eat it, too. They want the security, they want the consistency ... but they want the functionality of a PC." There is no paradox at all, the techies want security and consistency while end users want normal PC functionality.

Quoting the article: "... the basic terminals appear to offer improved security. Because the systems are designed to keep data on a server, sensitive information isn't lost if a terminal gets lost, stolen or damaged."

While true, this is far from the whole story. Thin client devices have ports for connecting all sorts of external devices that can be used to save files. As with a real PC, a person can stick a thumb drive into it and copy all manner of files.

The article gives the impression that the choice is either standard personal computers or thin clients/dumb terminals. This couldn't be more wrong. Almost every Fortune 500 company uses software from Citrix to run remote applications. As described here, the application is installed on a server computer running special, expensive software and remote users with real PCs access these application servers over the corporate LAN or the Internet. In fact, I'm pretty sure that the Wall Street Journal itself uses Citrix software in this way.

Some applications run normally on a personal computer while others are run remotely on application servers. The remote applications are run using software from Citrix that is either installed on a personal computer or accessed via a web page. This is a hybrid approach and one that is much more common than exclusive use of thin clients.

I have no idea what this sentence in the article means: "H-P, of Palo Alto, Calif., last week announced that a line of its slimmed-down PCs, which reside in the data center and enable users to connect through a thin client or other devices, was being made available in Europe, Canada and China for the first time." Nothing about thin clients/dumb terminals has to with PCs residing in a data center, it's all about high end servers in the data center. And if the PCs are in a data center, who cares about their height and width?

The article discusses a thin client laptop that connects wirelessly to "the network". Which network? The LAN of a company or the Internet? It doesn't say. And which wireless; WiFi or a wide area data network such as EV-DO or WiMax or HSDPA or UMTS? It doesn't say.


By the way, you can get a feel for running remote applications at windowsvistatestdrive.com a site that Microsoft set up to let people try/test drive the Vista operating system. I found it slow, but your mileage may differ.

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