Vendors Plug Thin Client as Security Elixir

News Analysis: Marketers of thin-client technology are pushing the model as an answer to IT administrators' data security headaches.

The U.S. Commerce Department released a statement on Sept. 21 admitting that more than 1,100 of its laptop computers were either lost or stolen over the last five years, with at least 249 of those machines confirmed to have held sensitive data.

With the litany of security issues facing Windows-based desktops and laptops, and other devices with the ability to store sizeable amounts of data locally, proponents of thin-client computing say such events provide a perfect example of why their technologies are getting a closer look from many enterprises these days.

From stolen devices to sophisticated malware viruses and data protection measures mandated by regulatory compliance laws, the ever-growing list of security concerns piling up on the desks of IT administrators worldwide is demanding that companies rethink the ways they handle and store data. Coupled with the push by workers to be allowed to access corporate networks from wherever they may be located, thin-client experts say businesses are already considering a shift to using larger numbers of the devices that depend on centralized systems to store and protect critical information.

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While thin-client machines, which rely primarily on back-end systems for their processing power and access to corporate data, have long been advocated by their makers as a more secure option than their Windows counterparts, the rising tide of computer security threats is driving new interest in the devices, said Henry Fieglein, chief innovation officer at San Jose, Calif.-based Wyse Technology, a maker of thin-client hardware and software.

"A lot of big-name customers and consultants are calling us because they want to have more control over the data that is sitting on laptops and desktops, data that they cant afford to lose because someone left their computer in a car or failed to download a software patch," Fieglein said. "They want to be able to allow workers to use mobile technology, and the proliferation of broadband has made it more feasible for people to rely on the network to access information."

Financial services companies in particular are exploring their options and investing in new thin-client systems, said Fieglein, who is also a former chief technology officer for industry giant Deutsche Bank. In addition to becoming a target for many emerging malware attacks, he said, companies doing business in the United States have struggled with a way to balance employee mobility with demands of the federal governments Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which imposes strict data-handling guidelines.

Another aspect to consider is the growing popularity of software-as-a-service applications, said the executive. He contends that as businesses adopt greater numbers of third-party hosted services to handle their data, most of which are accessed online, the demand to store critical data locally is being reduced.

Other industry players echoed those sentiments, saying that enterprises that have previously balked at the idea of shifting from Windows-based systems to thin clients feel that security issues are finally forcing their hand to do so.

"Security is one of the driving forces behind the growing number of enterprises who are deploying thin clients and server-based computing," said Robert Gianni, senior engineering director of Desktop Systems at Sun Microsystems, of Santa Clara, Calif. "Were seeing many customers come back after looking at thin clients a few years ago because when implemented correctly, all the data, applications, and file access can be centralized and contained in the data center where the best resources and talent can manage it."

Next Page: Analysts remain skeptical.