Trends in Thin Client Computing

Thin client computing has gone in and out of fashion, and even with the current focus, thin clients tend to be used in hybrid scenarios. Plus: is the browser the ultimate thin client?


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Thin Clients in The Dark and Distant Past

The IT world loves to swing back and forth between moving processing out to the user via fat clients and moving processing back to the server, leaving users with thin clients.

The battle is a long running one that started with the first appearance of multi-user computer systems several decades ago and has continued to this day. And it will likely continue for a very long time to come.

When I began working in IT, thin clients were simple text terminals attached to a single, central server via serial connections. Limited to very basic text input, these served their purpose at the time by providing relatively low cost computing to a large number of users. The system wasn't pretty or glamorous, but it was quite functional.

These ancient terminals gave way to the personal computer, and computing power shifted from the datacenter to the desktop. This allowed users to run powerful apps like Lotus 1-2-3 and WordPerfect. Responsive graphical applications were a powerful draw for decentralized processing. Users were enthralled with the new usability. The text terminal went into very rapid decline.

Eventually centralized power was available in such quantities and at such a low price point that graphical applications could be run with almost as much responsiveness from the server. Clients could be "thin," needing just a shim of an operating system - enough to provide remote access back to the server.

Thin computing became the darling of the industry again and the term itself arose. Centralized processing again moving towards the vogue.

Why IT Managers Love Thin Clients

Administrators love the central computing model because data and configuration remains in one place. Backups and management are a breeze. The idea, at least in theory, is that the thin client set-up makes desktop support becomes a non-issue – all desktop clients are nothing more than commodity components, easily replaced. Since nothing is stored or configured on the thin client there is nothing to support there.

In the initial swings of the "thin computing pendulum," the market movement was dramatic. When text terminal computing first became available this was practically the only model used in the real world. The value was so dramatic that no one could really justify doing anything else.

Yet when the PC was introduced the movement to the fat client was so ubiquitous that many younger IT professionals today have never actually seen text terminals in use. This is true even though the move to fat "PC" clients was not as all encompassing as the move to text terminals had been one pendulum swing earlier.

The PC model was generally better for end users because it mimicked how they used computers at home. It also gave them more options for customization and, for better or worse, opportunity for them to begin installing software of their own rather than only software preconfigured for them on the central server.

Thin Clients And Fat Clients Grow Similar

Over time there have been a lot of developments from both camps, giving each more and more of the advantages of the other.

Central domain services such as Microsoft's Active Directory have come along, allowing central management to extend out to fat clients. This brings control and management more in line with traditional thin computing models.

Likewise, companies like Citrix have worked very hard developing new technologies that allows thin clients to perform much more like robust fat clients, making their use as seamless as possible for end users. Offline use is even possible for laptop users.

Most shops today have adopted hybrid models: Fat clients where they make sense, thin clients for certain categories of users and for remote workers and continuity of business scenarios.

Web Apps and the Browser as Thin Client

Over the past decade we have seen a shift in the way that business applications are created and deployed. Today almost all business applications are web-based and have no client platform dependency. This affords IT departments with a potential new opportunity - to shift from a traditional thin client platform - requiring remote graphical access - to the browser as the new thin client platform.

The move to web apps has happened slowly and most businesses have a rather large legacy codebase on which they are quite dependent. This cannot be easily transferred to the new web app architecture and some apps simply are not good candidates for this architecture.

But by and large the majority of new business applications are web based, written most often in Java or .NET, and these apps are prime candidates for a new thin computing model.

If our custom business apps are available via the browser, then our only commonly used apps that now holding us back are the traditional productivity apps – our office suites widely used by nearly all staff.

Very few desktop apps are actually pervasive except for these. Increasingly we are seeing browser-based alternatives to the traditional office suites. Everyone is very aware of Google Apps as a pioneer in this area with Microsoft now offering online MS Office as well.

But the popular offerings making consumer news headlines require businesses to totally rethink long term strategies. This involves keeping critical business data within their walls and is not likely to be highly disruptive to the enterprise for quite some time.

What does pose a threat to the status quo is other alternative software products such as ThinkFree office, which is installed within the organization. It is used and secured internally just like any other normal business application.

This category of "traditionally installed internal web applications" will allow enterprise IT departments to begin to reconsider their end users' platforms without having to reevaluate their entire concept of IT in general. The biggest barriers to this today are lingering business applications and power users using specific desktop apps that cannot be encapsulated within a browser.

Next Page: Mixing Thin Clients, Browsers, and Traditional Apps

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Tags: thin client, Thin clients, thin client network, thin provisioning

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