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


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  • TA152H - Thursday, July 19, 2007 - link

    Actually, I had no steam until I read the Compaq stuff, so don't patronize me.

    I worked at IBM, and man did we hate Compaq. When I read stuff like that, I guess I still have some true blue blood in me, and it makes me mad.

    They didn't do anything. Compaq was certainly not the only company to reverse engineer IBM's BIOS, or really ROM as it was called then. It was done by many companies. Ever hear of Phoenix?

    They were not an important company in any way, there were plenty of clone makers out, although Compaq did make a reliable clone, but it was expensive as Hell too. They did use the 8086 instead of the 8088, and were the first to use the external cache on the 386, but then, Intel created the cache chip (82385)and setup so I'm still not sure what credit they deserve. What did Compaq do that would not have been without them? Nothing! They invented nothing. They just sold an expensive clone, that was ugly. IBM, by contrast, did a lot. Apple too, really.

    I don't know how to make the analogy for the parent, but Compaq was a meaningless company that in no way shaped the industry. I would call IBM the mother, and maybe Intel the father. Or maybe even Apple, because if you look at the IBM PC, it did seem to borrow a few things from the Apple II. Maybe it was a half grandfather or something. Tandy was an extremely important player too, not only because of the PC compatibles, but before. They brought the PC home, and did a lot of minor innovations too, like putting the OS in ROM, and adding their own low-end GUI (Deskmate). They also released the PC that Bill Gates said was what he used to develop Windows (The Tandy 2000, an odd bird based on the 80186, and MS-DOS compatible but not truly PC Compatible since the ROM calls were different).

    The reality is, the PC was really just an IBM product. No other company deserves too much credit, and frankly, IBM didn't even make anything too revolutionary, when you consider things. They made probably the biggest mistake in business history in fact, using a microprocessor from Intel, and an operating system from Microsoft. They thus lost control of the computer industry, slowly at first, but inevitably as microprocessors became too powerful for IBM's liking. They also made huge mistakes by degrading their PCs so as not to compete with their other lines. Not only in performance (why did the PC/AT have a wait state???), but also in price. Would anyone have bought that junk from Compaq if IBM didn't artificially inflate prices on their PS/2s? Would there have been clones if IBM had used proprietary technology, instead of using an inferior microprocessor, and off the shelf parts?

    Really, IBM only should get credit because of their name. It created a standard, and that it was a standard was more important than the actual company that created it. There was nothing special about the machines, although the PS/2s were incredible machines when released in 1987, and the RT PC was a technical masterpiece (although, in real world performance, was a failure). OS/2 was a great operating system too. But, by then their mistakes were carved in stone, and the rest of the world is now suffering from them. Sub-optimal microprocessors from AMD and Intel because of horrible instruction set, and a miserable OS from Microsoft that is bloated, buggy, and slow. Compaq, by virtue of it's irrelevance, bears no responsibility for that. IBM does, with arguably the worst choices ever made by a company, when considering the consequences of them.
  • Chunga29 - Thursday, July 19, 2007 - link

    Dude, you've got SERIOUS issues. I won't argue about whether or not Compaq was the mother of the business PC or not, but they were at least a player and basically you're having a fit about a short sentence that serves as the intro to the article. HP is now the biggest business PC maker I believe (barely ahead of Dell), so at least they're somewhat relevant. Anyway, get past the intro and read the article rather then going off on a little comment that was basically there to try and get people interested (or in your case perhaps, riled up). Reply
  • TA152H - Thursday, July 19, 2007 - link

    Yes, my issue is I dislike misinformation and revisionism. Yours is you do not. Which do you think is worse?

    I never said anything bad about HP. Compaq being the mother of the PC though, it just wrong. If no one points it out, then it tacitly is accepted as true, and it was not. If you think truth is irrelevant, then we have a fundamental difference of opinion.
  • Chunga29 - Thursday, July 19, 2007 - link

    This isn't even revisionism, I don't think. I mean come on, Johan is over in the Netherlands testing this stuff, and it was just an intro. The main gist (I believe) is that HP/Compaq and IBM are trying to push PCs out of the business sector. The conclusion is that at present they're still pushing proprietary, expensive technology that really doesn't benefit *most* companies. There are instances where it could be useful, but for most large companies a cheaper PC is still easy enough to support.

    I work at a fortune 500 company with thousands of PCs and laptops throughout the corporation. I haven't heard much about anyone pushing blades for us (though I'm sure IBM has tried). We have about 200 PCs and 20 laptops at my location, and about 10 spares. The spares are imaged and ready to roll in the computer room. If a PC has issues, we go out, swap PCs, take the old PC back and start troubleshooting. Takes about 15 minutes, 10 of which involves us carting the PC from the data center to the desk of whoever needs it.

    FWIW, Compaq did create the "luggable brick" PC, didn't they? I have fond memories of playing Rogue on a small 4-6" screen with a fold-down keyboard. Hahaha... those weighed about 40 pounds, I think! You still have major isses, though (as you indicate above). I mean, seriously, who gives a rip about whether or not Compaq was one of the major founders of the PC world? They were, along with many others, but it's pretty irrelevent.

    I'd say Intel is the father (hardware), Microsoft is the mother (software), and IBM is basically the preist that married the two and then everyone more or less ignored. That you're one of the people who think PS/2 was a great system speaks volumes in my book. It was expensive, not truly much faster, filled with proprietary parts, and in the PC world it was doomed to failure. It was basically IBM trying to put the wine back in the bottle after pouring, and the market rejected the idea.

    I remember doing some work on a guy's PS/2, and I was shocked at how much he paid for so little. $4000 or something crazy, and my little old $2000 clone 386 could run circles around it. Sure, it had SCSI (I think?), but a faster HDD subsystem with less RAM, a slower CPU, and all the other junk was meaningless. I think the biggest contribution the PS/2 made to the computer world is the PS/2 keyboard and mouse adapters!
  • JohanAnandtech - Thursday, July 19, 2007 - link

    Than I am sorry I overemphasized the role of compaq, but I think we can agree that this article was not about giving credit to those who layed the foundation for the personal computer.

    The purpose was to show that both HP and IBM/Lenovo, IMHO the most important players in the pc industry (from business desktop to pc server) were thinking out alternatives to the pc.

    Thanks for the historical insight.

  • TA152H - Thursday, July 19, 2007 - link

    I still have a fundamental problem with giving Compaq any credit for the foundation of the personal computer, because they were one of many clones, but they did sell to businesses, so I guess that counts for something (what I'm not sure of).

    HP was a much more important company than Compaq, not so much for their PCs, which were essentially clones and not particularly original, but they did a lot of work on CISC based workstations (68030) and operating systems for them, as well as their own stuff. I have nothing at all against HP, they were and are a very important company and have pioneereed a lot of interesting technology, currently the Itanium. Also, their impact on printers can not be ignored, as they became at one point a de facto standard.

    Compaq, invented?

    With regards to the article, it was nice to see the Eden processors mentioned. I wish they received more attention than they do, although I do have an 800 MHz processor and it's a complete failure on every level. It uses as much power as a K6-III+ at 600 MHz, and underperforms it at everything. For that reason I stuck with my K6-III+s, which are capable of changing multiplier without even rebooting the machine.

    However, now they have some 3.5 watt 1 GHz model which completely changes things. Their 1.5 GHz 7 watt model is also very impressive, and, I think, deserves a lot more press than it gets. These are certainly not speed kings, but for a lot of functions are perfectly adequate while having extraordinary power use.

    One thing about HP and IBM is, they are both technology companies, and I think have an interest in kicking out the commodity market as much as possible. Dell, being little more than a distributor, has an interest in commoditizing as much as possible. So, it's not altogether surprising that companies with the technical ability to create new products would attempt to do so, in an attempt to usurp the usefulness of commodity products. It's almost surprising it hasn't taken off more than it has, because most of the time PCs on a business LAN are so restricted that it almost is irrelevant if they have a hard disk, except for the fact they whine and use power. I'm not even sure the term business PC makes any sense, it's something of an oxymoron.

    As they say, the more things change, the more things remain the same. This is not so different from mainframes with 3270s attached to them. The processing can still be done on the client though, so in that respect it is. Certainly, however, things are a lot more centralized than they were 15 years ago. Good grief, I wonder if PL/1 will make a comeback. Oh, the humanity!
  • stmok - Thursday, July 19, 2007 - link

    Compaq made the PC clone possible by reverse engineering IBM's BIOS. (clean room approach).

    So they did have some influence as to what has become today's PC. (or PC Clone).

    Then again, the only use for the BIOS nowadays is for bootstrapping until the OS's drivers take over. (except for ACPI, you still need BIOS for that).
  • fic2 - Thursday, July 19, 2007 - link

    So, Compaq were more like the long lost uncle that comes into town after a few years to take pictures of the niece/nephew. Nothing to do with the conception or raising the kid, just bragging that if he wanted to he could have done the same. Reply
  • bob661 - Thursday, July 19, 2007 - link

    I'm still back on people being able to do CAD apps from 2000 miles away. LOL! The hardware may be there and the bandwidth may be there but there's NO WAY any company can guarantee that you'll get less than 20 ms of latency on an internet connection. Especially the more remote your users are. Are you willing to bet your engineering departments productivity on a promise from your ISP? I'm not. I'll pay the horrendous costs (LOL again!) for a dedicated desktop PC that's NOT at the mercy of an external company.

    BTW, if you want to eliminate viruses and such from the companies network, there's a free solution for this: IT'S CALLED ENFORCING COMPANY POLICY! This involves (gasp) training and if that fails, taking disciplinary action. If they STILL don't get it, fire them! It's FAR cheaper to fire an employee that's not productive (and inducing viruses on a the company's network reduces productivity) than it is to come up with some multi-million dollar scheme (thin clients and their respective high dollar IT admins) to outsmart them and put everyone's productivity at risk.

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