Back to the Future?

Centralized, 'thin' computing plans get another look

Perhaps the best way to manage a network teeming with PCs is not with more software or administrators but with a garbage truck. Many companies are hoping to save money and headaches by getting rid of the complicated, often obsolete PCs on every desktop and returning to centralized computing.

eWeek Labs believes that, when properly implemented, centralized architectures save time and money, not to mention countless deployment and maintenance headaches. However, IT managers must carefully assess the pros and cons of centralizing operations before a single desktop unit or workstation is replaced.

There are several potentially high costs associated with a move to centralized computing. Implementing such a system can create a single point of failure. In addition, the up-front costs of replacing installed systems and retraining staff must be taken into consideration.

Systems such as the LTSP (Linux Terminal Server Project) upgrade obviate abandoning hardware, and vendors including Sun Microsystems Inc. are working to alleviate the problem of the single point of failure.

Potentially just as worrisome is possible user backlash. That wide variety of software and hardware on a "fat-client" network provides workers with a degree of autonomy that they might not be willing to give up without a fight.

We recommend transitioning to a centralized system in small steps. By starting with a small group or adding thin clients to the network as desktops are replaced, users can see thin clients in action and administrators can learn to integrate the new technology into the network in the best ways possible.

Ample training must be provided to familiarize users with the system prior to the rollout. Users may be more receptive to the new system if they realize they arent giving up capabilities to make it work. Finally, administrators must make the transition as seamless as possible.

Thin, not dumb

centralized systems have come a long way from the glass house scenario that was common even a few years ago. Taking up where Oracles Network Computer left off, both of the centralized computing platforms that we reviewed offer a wide breadth of features, including GUIs, Web browsers, e-mail and full-featured office applications. Both systems use the mature X server and X Window System; the latter is a stable interface that supports a multitude of applications.

Suns Sun Ray/SunForum combination is a good choice for administrators in the market for a network computing system backed by a major vendor. The Sun Ray offers Web-based user management, load balancing of back-end servers and voice-over-IP calling capabilities from terminals. The Sun Ray system also supports redundant servers to alleviate some security concerns.

To test an open-source approach to centralized computing, we built a Linux terminal server using code from LTSP. In tests, the LTSP system proved to be a reliable, economical alternative that will enable a company to turn desktop units into X Window clients using a $35 bootable network adapter.