The Rise of Thin Clients

Every IT professional has heard the various reasons why desktop PCs are not very efficient devices in a professional environment. It's pretty simple: there's nothing "personal" about the data that you process on your PC at your work. In many cases the data represents a lot of work and is worth a lot of money, so it should never be saved on a local hard disk that could crash or be wiped out. Also, as users try to personalize their PCs, they sometimes configure software badly, introduce malware, perhaps crack open the case on occasion, and so on. All this means that PCs require quite a bit of repair and maintenance time from the helpdesk people. As desktops have become more powerful, power requirements have also increase quite a lot. There is nothing new with these complaints: as early as 1987 the Gartner group drew the attention to the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) associated with (badly) managed business desktops.

That is the reason SBC is becoming so popular, whether in the form of Windows Terminal Server or Citrix Metaframe. 50 to 100 users can connect via thin clients to one central server that runs one instance of Windows Server 2003. That means that you only need to manage one copy of Windows Server instead of all those copies of Windows 2000/XP, which all need to be configured and updated on a regular basis. The thin client has no moving parts: hard disks are absent and the 6W to 9W CPUs require only passive cooling. All user profile information is stored on a central server, making it possible to quickly replace a faulty client.

However, the number of applications that will run properly on a thin client with SBC are limited. If you need to develop a new application or report to your management using heavy data mining, the typical VIA Eden 800 MHz or AMD Geode NX 1 GHz processors that are found in most thin clients won't go very far. If you need to perform some heavy CAD or 3D animation work, you are definitely out of luck. That is where the business desktop still makes a lot of sense.

So what is the alternative that HP and IBM are proposing? As IBM and HP account for 80% of the very profitable blade market, it's no surprise that the new PC alternative has taken the shape of a blade. HP and IBM came up with two solutions: the blade PC and the workstation blade. IBM only offers the workstation blade, and for the blade PC you have to go to Lenovo. HP offers everything, and calls this solution CCI or Consolidated Client Infrastructure. Before we discuss these solutions in more detail, we need to investigate the hardware that is the foundation of this concept.

Both HP and IBM use the same basic configuration as you can see below.

A thin client and blade PC should replace the business desktop PC, according to HP and IBM

The basic idea is that a thin stateless client will access a blade PC and that all valuable data is stored on shared storage device.

The advantages are:
  • The PC user cannot store any valuable documents on the client, thus data is kept central and is always backed up
  • A thin client can be replaced in matter of minutes instead of hours
  • There is less heat generated in the office: a thin client needs about 15 to 30W instead of the 50W to 200W typical of a business desktop PC
  • The electricity bill should be lower as even a blade + thin PC consumes less than a typical desktop PC (according to HP)
Index The Rise of Thin Clients, Cont'd


View All Comments

  • Pale Rider - Thursday, July 19, 2007 - link

    I work for a fortune 500 company as a sys admin. We have 10,000 nodes (PCs and servers).

    Half of those are desktop business PCs and we use PCs on purpose - they fullfill the business need the best.

    The facst are, most applictions do not run correctly in a terminal server or think client enviroment. Until the software developers change this and the cost of this clients come down consideranly we have no plans to move to think clients - this is true for the majority of IT departments as well.
  • rowcroft - Thursday, July 19, 2007 - link

    It's been out there for years, but I have deployed Sun's SunRay systems and they worked great. Granted, the environment had limited Windows requirements (ran Mozilla for web and e-mail, used custom apps for business use) but those were satisfied with a Citrix deployment.

    If you're looking for a stable, cost effective environment (both from a productivity and hard cost savings PoV) then you should consider something like that as well.
  • yacoub - Thursday, July 19, 2007 - link

    I'd feel horrible for anyone working in that type of locked-down environment... no freedom, no ability to use software beyond what is installed by the default image (obviously I'm talking about winamp, AIM, and other useful items, not trojans or malware), all of your programs and processing power are at the mercy of whoever dictates how much your share of the server's horsepower you're allowed to consume and what software you have access to. Ugh. What a death sentence of a work environment.

    And for the IT department, what a dream come true! ;)
  • rowcroft - Thursday, July 19, 2007 - link

    Problem is, who gets to determine what's OK and what isn't? Try managing that in an enterprise environment. This isn't meant for a shop with 200 computers and one admin. Reply
  • yacoub - Thursday, July 19, 2007 - link

    Why the preview lure text for articles that is posted on the homepage below the article title always cuts off and yet the exact sentence never seems to be found in the actual article:


    t's 2007, and a serious attempt on the life of the PC is in the works. Shockingly, the murder is planned by nobody less...

    nobody less than who? Please finish the sentence of the preview text on the homepage, instead of burying parts of it amongst several sentences later in the article.
  • strikeback03 - Thursday, July 19, 2007 - link

    If you go to the "IT Computing" tab at the top of the page (or whatever section the article is in) you get the whole intro blurb. they just display a portion on the homepage. Reply
  • punko - Thursday, July 19, 2007 - link

    As a heavy guy, I resent the term "fat client".

    The biggest improvement in cost of ownership lately has been the change to LCD monitors. The effect is real in power savings.

    The biggest headache is the licensing model change by Microsoft, AutoDesk and Adobe. This may lead to a massive shift in software to open source alternatives.

    In our firm, most have PC's with a large number of laptops. Thin clients can't replace laptops, and most of us with PC's tend to push them hard, so there isn't any advantage over PC's.
  • Chunga29 - Thursday, July 19, 2007 - link

    Give me a break - take the PC (political correctness) somewhere else, please! If you're so offended, get off your duff and get some exercise, drop the fast food, don't drink sodas or juice or alcohol, and you'll be amazed at what that can do for your obesity.

    And yes, you probably are clinically obese, as are 65% (and rising) Americans. I was one of them until a year ago, when I kicked my ass into shape doing the above. Dropped from 240 pounds and 31% body fat down to 190 pounds and 16% body fat, where I have been happily resting for the past six months.

    Or, you can be like so many others and blame the problem on genetics, your job, etc. because weight issues certainly can't be caused by personal behavior!
  • NT78stonewobble - Saturday, September 15, 2007 - link

    I read it as a joke.

    Still I WOULD blame my doctor on gaining around 30 % body weight in one year when I was twelve by giving me hormones.

    Hormones that in the end wouldn't have had any effect on me. Hormones would help eg. 60 % of cases and in the rest surgery was necessary. However the initial exam of everyone with this particular problem was cut due to costs and thus everyone was given one or even two halfyear treatsments of hormones instead.

    So unless you really know the guy dont ditch him.

    P.S. Yes I've lost the weight since then. I am however still suffering from depressions going on the 10 th year and have an allmost anorectic relationship to food.
  • JohanAnandtech - Thursday, July 19, 2007 - link

    Thin portables do exist, and could be a reality once Wimax and/or 3G are ubiquitous.

    But I do agree that the licensing models of the bige Software guys add a lot to TCO. Is it just me or is IDC always trying minimize those by grossly overestimating administration costs? :-)

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