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Thin Client Computing
By Terrell Haigh,
with St. Louis LAN to MAN Builders, Corp.
The IT segment
always goes 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 arguemnts for and against is a long running tale 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 making a living 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 sexy, but it was quite a (skinny) workhouse that got
These old timer terminals gave
way to the personal computer, and computing power shifted from the datacenter server(s) to the
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.
Then 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 little slice of an operating system - enough to provide
remote access back to the server.
became the love-child of the industry again and the term itself arose. Centralized processing again moving towards the "hip."
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.
is stored or configured on the thin client there is nothing to support there.
In the initial swings of the "thin computing swingset," the market movement was
pretty heavy. 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 widespread 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 copied 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.
And Fat Clients Grow Like Each Other.....
Over time there have been a lot of developments from both sides, giving each more and more of the advantages of the
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.
Enterprises like Citrix have worked very hard developing new technologies that allows
thin clients to perform much more like powerful fat clients, making their use as seamless as possible for end users. Offline
use is even possible for laptop users.
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
This category of "traditionally installed internal
web apps" 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....and, the cloud keeps getting faster and (fatter?)....