Thin-client technology is controversial. I've been interviewing readers who have implemented thin-client/server solutions, and these readers report that they added hundreds of devices without increasing IS support. Imagine adding 400 PCs to an existing environment and not adding one PC support person to your staff. Let's look at arguments against thin clients and what I've learned.
PC Prices Are Falling
One argument against thin-client solutions such as terminals and network computers (NCs) is that PC prices are decreasing. However, the readers I interviewed said that price doesn't matter. Experienced administrators claim that even if all client hardware (PCs, NetPCs, NCs, Windows-based terminals, etc.) were priced the same, managing thin-client/server environments would still require significantly fewer human resources than managing PC environments.
One reader told me that his end users helped install the hardware. He shipped preconfigured servers to five remote locations. The end users plugged in the servers, connected the terminals (out-of-the-box settings), and were up and running in an hour. He shipped extra mouse devices and keyboards to the remote sites for any necessary repairs. Try that approach with PCs!
Not for Everyone
OK, terminals aren't for every user. But you should be asking yourself where you can't use them, rather than where you can use them. Laptops are still the best choice for a mobile workforce, and high-end workstations are still the best choice for graphic-intensive applications and for developers. However, you can easily add a thin-client protocol to such platforms to access network-based applications such as Office 97, Internet Explorer (IE), and line-of-business applications. In other words, you can configure one Windows NT workstation box to work as both a high-end workstation and a thin client.
One reader told me that 60 percent of his 14,000 desktops were candidates for thin clients. I asked whether he was planning to use old 486s as thin clients. He said, "I tell the end users to leave the monitor, keyboard, and mouse and to throw away the PC. We replace it with a pizza box-sized terminal. I can't afford to maintain old PCs."
When I got interested in thin-client technology years ago, I thought it would have minimal effect on the industry. In Windows NT Magazine's Web-based instaNT Poll (January 1998), 18 percent of the respondents reported that they were going to implement thin-client technology in 1998. Another 38 percent of the respondents said that they would experiment with thin-client technology in 1998. After interviewing readers who are currently implementing this technology, I believe its impact will be much larger, possibly doubling in the next 12 months.
Another argument against thin clients is that thin clients require fat servers. It's true: You can barely squeeze 60 thin-client users out of a 4-way Pentium Pro-based server, but you can run hundreds of file-and-print clients on a similar-sized server. However, with the new Xeon Pentium II-based servers, the number of thin-client users per server should increase by 50 percent, to 90 users per server. With load balancing, you can scale this solution by evenly distributing client loads across multiple servers while providing availability in the event of a server failure. You can create load-balanced Microsoft Windows NT Server 4.0, Terminal Server Edition farms using Citrix's MetaFrame load-balancing option or round robin Domain Name System (DNS), or by buying a Cubix server.
A final argument against thin-client technology concerns the pricing of Terminal Server. "Concurrent pricing has been replaced with per-seat licensing for all Microsoft products," said John Fredrickson, Terminal Server product manager. Each thin-client device requires a full NT Workstation license and a Client Access License (CAL), which are not included in the price of Terminal Server. You won't use NT Workstation, but you have to buy it anyway. This requirement isn't a problem for large companies with a Microsoft site-license, but for small to midsized companies or concurrent licensing users, the up-front cost is significant.
For example, Burlington Coat Factory supports 400 NeoWare NCs from Citrix WinFrame, although only about 50 users are active at any given time. Burlington purchased a 50-user license for WinFrame. To use Terminal Server, Burlington would have to buy 400 CALs and 400 licenses for NT Workstation 4.0--a price increase of more than $100,000 compared with the company's current Citrix solution. Microsoft's pricing has prompted Burlington to recommend UNIX.
Don't Take My Word for It
I encourage you to talk with your peers who have thin-client/server computing in production. (Windows NT Magazine has set up a thin-client/server interactive forum on our Web site at http://www.winntmag.com/terminal/main.cfm.) The recent growth in the thin-client market presents a bigger question: Are there enough landfills to hold all the throw-away PCs?