The post-PC era

Thin clients have endured many bumps on the road to acceptance. But there are signs that server-based computing, along with its lightweight PC alternatives, will soon take hold.


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Today, early thin-client adopter Chip Childress understands that manageability is the true power of thin clients. But that hasn't always been the case. Four years ago, he was attracted to thin clients because he thought they would be cheaper than full-blown PCs.

AT A GLANCE: Holston Medical Group
The company:
Holston Medical Group is a 250-physician organization based in Kingsport, Tenn.

The problem:
As part of an electronic medical record (EMR) implementation, Holston needed to computerize its staff of physicians for the first time. But back in 1995, the estimated cost per PC was $3,000, much more than the small company could spend.

The solution:
Holston installed Winterm thin clients from Wyse Technology Inc. At a cost of $1,500 each, the company saved $375,000.

The IT infrastructure:
Two hundred and fifty Wyse Winterm thin clients (assorted models), and between 35 and 40 conventional PCs. Hewlett-Packard Net Server and Pro Servers running Citrix WinFrame. SQL Server 6.5 database. Thin clients access the electronic medical record (EMR) system from IDX Systems Corp. of Burlington, Vt.
Childress, director of IS at the Holston Medical Group, a physicians' group in Kingsport, Tenn., was heading up an electronic medical record (EMR) project. The group's doctors, unaccustomed to computers, would be the EMR system's primary users. But PCs were much more expensive back in 1995, and Childress faced an outlay of $3,000 each for 250 machines equipped with 90MHz Pentium CPUs. When he heard that Wyse Technology Inc. had just introduced a small, lightweight desktop machine that would run applications from a central server and cost only about $1,500 each, he was sold.

So he gambled on Wyse's brand-new model 2310 Winterms, saving himself a cool $375,000 in the deal. The $1,500 per machine included a pro-rated share of the cost of hardware and software for the Citrix Systems Inc. WinFrame server.

"It didn't take us long to discover the real benefits of thin clients: substantial reduction in administrative overhead," says Childress. It takes only 10 minutes to get a new Wyse Winterm up and running. If a machine breaks down, data recovery is not an issue, since everything is stored centrally on a Citrix Systems Inc. WinFrame server, which runs on Hewlett-Packard Co.'s NetServer and LXR Pro Server four-way-processor Pentium Pro boxes. Updating software is a snap; you install it just once, on the server. And that's a good thing, since both the Wyse and the Citrix technologies were new when he implemented them, and Childress had to install patches and updates almost every day.

Holston Medical Group is not going back to conventional PCs anytime soon. Even the few administrative staffers who use PCs access their accounting and other software packages through the central Citrix server rather than from a local hard drive. For Childress--and for other IT managers--the centralized management that thin clients offer is priceless. But widespread recognition of the value of thin clients has been a long time coming.

The genesis of thin clients

Thin clients were introduced with much fanfare in 1995. The idea was not new, but it was powerful: a lightweight desktop machine that would access applications and information from a central source on the network but would not do its own processing. Absent floppy or CD-ROM drives and without access to a control panel, users can't add programs or muck around with corporate-standard settings. Such constraints would theoretically reduce the number of crashes and lessen the support load. Many IT managers were eager to take back some of the control they had lost when mainframe and minicomputers gave way to PC-based client/server systems.

Analysts at the time praised thin clients' lower acquisition price and total cost of ownership. But users strongly resisted the move to take away their personal computers. And then when prices of PCs dropped radically, it looked like the thin client market would disappear. Last year, thin client revenues dipped significantly, according to Zona Research, Inc., of Redwood City, Calif. Even the industry's major players (Network Computing Devices Inc., IBM, and Wyse) were hit hard. As with the PC market, the pressure to reduce prices was--and continues to be--intense. NCD is just one vendor that recently cut prices on thin client software and hardware to maintain an edge over ever-cheaper PCs.

Terminal Server to the rescue

But reports of the demise of thin clients were greatly exaggerated. Thin clients may well be poised to make their move, particularly in commercial applications where the work is task-oriented. Microsoft Corp.'s Terminal Server multiuser NT 4.0-based server operating system software for thin clients (which was introduced in late 1998 and replaces the NT 3.5.1-based Citrix WinFrame) will be a boon to the market this year, according to Zona. Companies that were waiting for Microsoft may now get into thin clients for the first time, says Greg Blatnik, a vice president at Zona. The fact that Microsoft recently trimmed Terminal Server prices 20% to 30% has only helped its adoption rate, he says. The suggested retain price for a five-client license of NT 4.0 Terminal Server edition is $1,299. And NT 2000, which will support thin clients on its own, obviating the need for the Terminal Server add-on, is expected by year-end.

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