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 facilitys 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 didnt fit the bill. Instead, he concluded that a move to thin clients, specifically blade desktops manufactured by ClearCube, was the cure for the hospitals IT ills.
The thin-client space is “definitely gaining traction, and I dont 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.
“We are working on products optimized” for that space, said Gregory Bryant, general manager for Intels 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.
Its 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.
“The problem had been that thin clients were great, but they couldnt replace the desktop. The reason VMware and other virtualization schemes have taken off over the last year is that they afford IT departments the ability to completely replace a PC … at a cost that is lower than having a desktop,” said John Kish, CEO of Wyse Technology, in San Jose, Calif.
Indeed, generating a quick return on investment ranked high in Foss decision to use 300 ClearCube blade desktops, he said.
Some of the perks included storing data remotely inside server rooms only accessible to IT staff and shuttering USB ports on the desk side.
To be sure, the number of thin clients shipped each year is still relatively small; there were roughly 2.4 million units shipped in 2005, versus the tens of millions of corporate desktops shipped the same year, according to IDC.
“The question really is how big [of a market] is it going to be,” said Howard Locker, chief architect for PC product design at Lenovo Group, in Raleigh, N.C.
Locker said he believes that the desktop PC market will fragment over the next several years, producing a much higher percentage of notebook users—most so-called knowledge workers or content creators will use notebooks, he predicts—leaving traditional desktops to fight it out with desktop blades and other thin clients, he said.
But the trend for thin clients is still up. Thin-client shipments grew a whopping 42 percent in 2005. That growth wasnt a fluke, said Bob ODonnell, an analyst at IDC, in San Mateo, Calif.
By 2010, IDC predicts that thin clients will grow to take up as much as 15 percent of corporate desktop shipments in the United States and somewhat less worldwide.
“The benefits are that thin clients have about two times the lifetime of PCs—six to seven years—and [there are] no OS upgrades to worry about, necessarily,” he said. “You can combine thin clients with some level of virtualization and come up with some interesting models.”
As those models emerge, vendors including AMD and Intel; systems builders such as Dell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Lenovo and Wyse; and software makers such as Ardence and VMware are all eyeing thin clients in some way.
HP, IBM and Lenovo all offer blades than can emulate desktops, for example. IBM—whose Virtualized Hosted Client uses VMware and Citrix software—and Lenovo work with ClearCube, to a certain extent, while HP offers both a line of more traditional thin clients and a blade desktop product of its own.
Dells diskless PC bundles transform a desktop such as its OptiPlex GX260 into a box that processes data locally but retrieves its operating system and data from remote servers and storage gear.
Even more pure thin-client vendors, such as Wyse, are changing with the times.
Traditionally a hardware company, Wyse is now betting on software, including inking a deal with virtualization software company VMware.
Virtualization will help deliver so-called virtual desktops, which contain a persons operating system, applications and data, to the screens of company employees, regardless of the type of hardware or software a company is using, Kish said.
VMware, for its part, is also seeking a larger role in the thin-client space by creating a Virtual Desktop Infrastructure Alliance that includes companies such as IBM, HP and ClearCube. VMware wants to apply its software to help numerous devices work together more smoothly. It believes its work can remove uncertainties about thin clients, such as the question of how decentralized an enterprise wants to be.
Wyse also continues to develop new hardware. It is preparing what it says is an inexpensive desktop client based on a single chip. The machine is due in the third quarter, Kish said.
Combining virtualization and low-cost hardware can ultimately replace a desktop for about a third of the cost, Kish said.
Not everyone agrees, however, about what kind of low-cost hardware that should be.
“Really what youre trading is centralization versus decentralization. You can be totally centralized, which is a blade solution. You can be totally decentralized, which is the traditional desktop. Or you can be in-between,” Locker said.
The in-betweens involve centralizing all applications and data but allowing PCs to access them—not unlike Dells Ardence bundle—or only centralizing the data and keeping the applications where they were—on PCs.
“I think the lowest-cost solution is decentralized low-cost desktops with centralized data,” Locker said.
Too Much Variety
Too Much Variety
With the proliferation of thin clients—or not-so-thin clients, in Lockers view—a new problem arises for senior IT managers: variety.
The rising number of choices among thin clients can complicate a decision, ODonnell said.
Companies pick from many hardware types, ranging from traditional thin clients to server-based virtual desktops, in addition to modified desktop PCs. Thus, companies such as Ardence and, to some extent, VMware, are emphasizing software, leaving the hardware choices up to customers.
The Software-Streaming Platform from Ardence—which transmits a users desktop image to his or her screen—relies on back-end servers more for file serving than for processing. Thus, when using a shared image, which is the same for all users, it can support as many as 200 to 250 clients per server.
Those clients can be diskless PCs, such as Dells, or older PCs whose hard drives have been removed. Given that they use PCs, drawbacks such as showing multimedia files are lessened, said Jeff Hibbard, Ardences vice president of marketing, in Waltham, Mass.
“When I turn my PC on, I choose, do I want to be on Channel 1 or Channel 2? Once booted, I have full Windows—its all running locally on my PC—and I get the full, rich experience,” Hibbard said. However, “if someone stole a box that had intelligence data on it, thered be nothing in that box.”
And that appeals to customers such as New London Hospitals Foss. “Its great to know that physical piece of hardware will have little to no value to anyone once it leaves this place,” he said.
Blades: Acting either as stand-ins for single desktops—in a blade desktop product—or as hosts for multiple users desktop environments, these machines literally move the desktop, its data and all processing to the server room, allowing data, applications and operating systems to be accessed remotely. Prices: $1,200 to $2,600
Thin Clients: Sometimes called Windows terminals, thin clients operate off a central server that hosts data and specific applications but retain an operating system and handle some computing on the desktop. Prices range from about $300 to $700 or more.
The In-Between: The alternative to traditional thin clients and blades is the PC. So-called diskless PCs—desktop computers without hard drives—receive their applications and data from servers. Corporate desktops generally range from $350 and up.