Thin Clients II: The Comeback

 
 
By John G. Spooner  |  Posted 2006-05-08
 
 
 

David Foss needed new computers, stat. As the CIO at New London Hospital in New London, N.H., Foss had to devise a method for replacing the facility's entire aging fleet of desktop PCs while better securing its sensitive patient data, easing the systems management load on its technology department and gaining a solid return on the investment.

After an exhaustive review, which included evaluating new PCs, Foss concluded that upgrading to new desktops didn't fit the bill. Instead, he concluded that a move to thin clients, specifically blade desktops manufactured by ClearCube, was the cure for the hospital's IT ills.

The thin-client space is "definitely gaining traction, and I don't think that anyone can really shrug it off as not being something they should look at," Foss said.

Apparently, thin is in when it comes to desktops. After years of false starts for the so-called thin-client revolution, CIOs like Foss are finding a new generation of machines handy for replacing desktop PCs, and that is getting the attention of industry heavyweights, including Intel and PC maker Dell, which are now creating new thin-client products.

Despite its recent launch of vPro, Intel has begun developing, for the first time, a chip line dedicated to thin clients, company executives said. The vPro chip platform is designed to create desktops that offer improvements in security and manageability as well as energy efficiency, thus making desktop PCs more efficient for businesses. Yet Intel still believes that thin clients—which by their nature are designed to supplant traditional desktops—will become popular enough in coming years for the company to dedicate a product line to the category.

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"We are working on products optimized" for that space, said Gregory Bryant, general manager for Intel's Digital Office Platforms Group, in Santa Clara, Calif.

Chip maker Advanced Micro Devices is nearing the announcement of an initiative intended to shake up the corporate client space.

The company, for one, plans to apply its chips to a number of new desktop devices, potentially including so-called stateless computers—low-cost, desktop PC-like machines designed to access data from corporate networks—said Marty Seyer, vice president of commercial business and performance computing at AMD, in Sunnyvale, Calif.

Dell is venturing into the space by quietly offering a bundle that streams data and applications hosted on servers to diskless PCs using software from Ardence, based in Waltham, Mass.

The renewed interest in thin clients comes with a broader shift toward smaller, desk-bound client computers among businesses. Generally, desktop machines are expected to take on sleeker forms as companies move toward smaller, more power-efficient machines. Market researcher IDC projects that small-form-factor desktops will proliferate in the United States as early as 2009. As part of that shift toward smaller machines, thin clients will gain as well.

Next Page: Why now?

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Why Now?

It's natural to ask "Why now," given that thin clients have been around since at least the late 1980s, when Citrix began championing remote access to applications.

Part of the answer is that new legislation—such as the Healthcare Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, for example—is forcing senior technology managers to think about how to lock down the sensitive data located on PCs that can be stolen or hacked. For its part, HIPAA requires medical facilities and related companies to, at a minimum, ensure that they limit unnecessary or inappropriate disclosure of protected health information.

Meanwhile, new technologies, including hardware and virtualization software, all make it easier to host desktop environments on a server and transmit them to workers' desktops. Blade desktops, for example, work on the back end like a server but host users' desktop environments.

These technologies offer greater benefits and fewer drawbacks than previous thin-client generations when it comes to delivering computing resources. However, cost is often the main reason that companies choose to make the leap to thin clients, industry watchers say.

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