The post-PC era: Page 3

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Thin clients can indeed let IT managers escape support hassles, especially where the thin clients serve as terminal replacements, as with Detroit Diesel-Allison, says Zona's Blatnik. "A PC is a loaded weapon. It has the potential to go very wrong if it's in the wrong hands," he says. When the users have not had PCs previously, there are fewer educational and training issues.

Reduced TCO: fact or fiction?

Anything that adds control and centralizes desktop management (as thin clients do) is likely to cost less than support-intensive PCs. That logic seems sound, but it's difficult to demonstrate with hard numbers.

According to a Meta Group Inc. study commissioned last year by NCD, the yearly total cost of ownership for a pure thin client environment is as much as 23% lower than the combined hardware purchase, training, support, maintenance, and operational costs of the typical unmanaged PC LAN environment. Meta estimates that the yearly TCO of a typical PC is $2,824; a thin client's is $2,176. Meta also estimates the break-fix support costs for thin clients are 34% less than unmanaged PCs.

Prices for thin clients head south

Low-priced PCs and a high number of vendors contributed to a steep drop in thin client prices in 1998. This trend will continue, says Zona Research.

thin client prices
Source: Zona Research Inc., April 1999

Numbers like these are interesting but abstract, says Doug Palmer, thin client product manager at systems integrator and reseller Datasource Hagen Inc., in St. Louis Park, Minn. Datasource Hagen sells thin clients from NCD, IBM, and Wyse as well as a variety of PCs.

"Most of our customers just want to get back centralized control. They know total cost of ownership is an issue, but they typically don't believe the numbers they see from consultants, and they don't know how to define it for themselves," says Palmer. "Our clients tend to look at thin clients as a way to reduce the support pains they're experiencing. And that helps them feel better about TCO," even though they may never quantify specific cost savings for themselves, he says.

Although he's not one of Datasource's clients, Ric Seale fits Palmer's characterization to a T. Seale, IT manager for the Collom & Carney Clinic Association, is skeptical of TCO numbers--whether they be for PCs or thin clients. "The numbers always seem a little off," he says.

Collom & Carney, a physicians' group in Texarkana, Texas, recently replaced 150 dumb terminals with IBM Network Station Series 300 thin clients as part of a move from a proprietary, AS/400-based practice management system to an RS/6000-based Medic Computer Systems Inc. MEDIC Vision/PM system.

Seale didn't do a detailed TCO analysis before implementing thin clients; he saw that going with PCs would require hiring one or two more full-time support people. "We didn't run detailed numbers, but we knew if we could keep our staffing down, it would cost us less," he says. And unlike many others, Seale did eke out a modest up-front savings by going with the Network Stations. Each IBM thin client cost $1,200; each PC would have cost $1,500.

The downtime disadvantage

The fact that thin clients run exclusively off the network is the source of both their greatest strength (manageability) and their biggest weakness (downtime). If the network goes down, thin client users have no way of working locally since they have no hard drive to store data. So far, Childress and Cullen say they haven't had much in the way of network downtime. Holston's physicians access the EMR application from a central server, so even if they had PCs, they wouldn't be able to work locally during an outage. "We're not a 24x7 shop. We operate from 7:30 A.M. to 9 at night, so we don't have those demands," says Childress, noting network uptime has been about 97%.

Many large companies that require continuous network operation are electing to install server farms that have load-balancing and failover capability for extra protection, according to Jeff McNaught, vice president of marketing for Wyse, in San Jose, Calif. "A lot of the fears about downtime have gone away," says McNaught.

Lessons learned about thin clients
Focus on long-term costs. The acquisition costs of thin clients and PCs will be about the same, but thin clients typically cost less to maintain and support.
Know your users. Be sure to gauge user acceptance before implementing thin clients. Users who have never worked with PCs are more likely to accept thin clients.
Mix it up. PCs and thin clients can co-exist quite happily. If you decide to try thin clients, pick a small pilot group with cooperative users.

Childress believes thin clients conserve bandwidth on the WAN because all execution of code and requests is done centrally. "All the heavy lifting is taking place on the backbone; we're only feeding the image out to the remote office," he says.

User acceptance

As these users' experiences show, thin clients are unquestionably useful in environments where users did not previously have PCs. The remaining question--and a sticking point for the future of thin clients: Will PC users ever accept thin clients as a replacement?

The fact is, many users are psychologically attached to their PCs; they won't give them up without a fight. Even Zona's Blatnik, who sees a rosy future for thin clients, cautions that gaining user acceptance can be tricky. "It would be difficult to transition a PC population to thin clients,'' he says. "I don't think a wholesale migration to thin clients from PCs is the norm in any case."

Thin clients are not the best solution in all settings, admits Wyse's McNaught. "Thin clients are not about world domination. They are a simpler device to solve customer problems, where they make sense," McNaught says. They make the cleanest fit in single-task environments such as a call center.

McNaught points to GartnerGroup Inc.'s estimates that 20% to 30% of all desktops could reasonably be thin clients. "It's only 20% to 30% if all goes well for us."

Although thin clients will never unseat the PC, they have proven themselves to be a great solution for some companies. Holston's Childress found himself in the unaccustomed role of technology front-runner when server-based computing was all the rage in 1996 and 1997. Says Childress, "We were on the front edge of something--and we didn't even have to bleed." //

Lauren Gibbons Paul is a contributing editor. She can be reached at laurenpaul@mediaone.net.

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