Revived Fervor for Smart Monitors Linked to a Server
SAN FRANCISCO — Instead of having a big, loud and complex computer on your desk, what if you could have a quiet, thin machine that rarely needed an upgrade or a fix?
That has been the goal of many technology companies over the last 15 or so years. They have tried to disrupt Microsoft’s dominance of the PC desktop by creating what amount to intelligent monitors.
Rather than relying on their innards for handling work, these so-called thin clients send it out over the network to much larger servers that hold all of the necessary software and handle data-processing jobs.
For a variety of reasons, including slow data connections and clunky software, this model failed to live up to its promise and turned into an industrywide joke. But now the technology is making a comeback, and large companies like Hewlett-Packard, Sun Microsystems and Samsung are increasing their investments in thin client systems. Plenty of start-ups are looking at the market as well.
Thin-client backers have by now mostly given up on challenging Microsoft — in fact, in most cases they make it easy to use Windows over the network. But they continue to bill thin clients as a way to save companies money and make their systems more secure.
“The hype cycle that has followed thin clients started at this enormous level, disappeared into negativity and now is bubbling back up,” said Bob O’Donnell, an analyst at the consulting firm IDC.
The benefits of the technology seem obvious. Software glitches, updates and security are much less of a problem. The thin-client model places the burden of managing computers on professionals monitoring servers in a large warehouse.
Perhaps best of all, the users’ data is stored on the network. If the machine on your desk breaks, you just get another one and connect to the data warehouse, and off you go.
The biggest changes driving the interest in thin clients stem from networking and software improvements. The spread of high-speed Internet connections means that people working in a cubicle and at home can rely on an effective link back to the data warehouses.
H.P., Citrix Systems, Microsoft and others are also fine-tuning the software that controls communication between thin clients and the servers. This has led to smoother-running machines that can handle even video and audio applications.
Most significantly, the pool of programs thin clients can use has grown thanks to so-called virtualization software, which lets companies package up an entire operating system and all of its applications. Instead of picking and choosing certain software to send over the wire, companies can ship entire “virtual desktops.”
The reinvigorated buzz around thin-client technology has caused a scramble to address the market in innovative ways.
For example, Teradici, a start-up near Vancouver, produces a microprocessor that can speed the flow of software from data warehouses to thin clients. Dell and I.B.M. offer systems based on this chip and say that they can deal with even the most demanding software, like design programs.
Next month, Samsung will ship the 19-inch SyncMaster 930ND monitor, which relies on Teradici’s chip. Business customers can plug an Ethernet cable into the monitor and turn it into a full-fledged computer by connecting back to their data centers.
Customers of the Silicon Valley start-up Pano Logic plug their monitors, keyboards and mice into a small device that manages connections with servers holding full virtual desktops. The Hot-E from the Australian company ThinLinX is similar. One longtime player in the thin-client business, Wyse, manufactures an array of slim hardware, including laptops, that handle much the same work.
Noting rising interest in thin clients and virtual desktops, H.P. created a new group six months ago to address the technology, after buying the thin-client company Neoware for $214 million in late 2007.
“What you are seeing is that a lot of the right technology elements are starting to be there,” said Roberto Moctezuma, the vice president in charge of H.P.’s “desktop solutions” organization. “I think five years from now you will see a lot of thin computing in businesses.”
JetBlue has bought into thin clients for 20 percent of its computers using a combination of H.P.’s hardware and Citrix’s software. The technology will take center stage at the airline’s new terminal at Kennedy Airport.
“Thin clients represent a strategic direction for us,” said Pat Thompson, director of technology operations at JetBlue. “They are pretty much behind every customer-facing piece of technology that you see out there.”
By next January, the Regional Transportation District of Denver, which handles public transit in the Denver area, plans to replace about one-quarter of its systems with thin clients from Wyse running virtualization software from VMware.
“We’re looking at saving about $30,000 per year just in energy costs,” said Trent Ratcliff, the technology infrastructure manager. “And we’ll probably replace these every seven to nine years instead of every three years with PCs.”
Despite the budding interest, thin clients remain a tough sell for cultural reasons. People are used to keeping confidential and personal information on their own machines, and many companies see moving away from traditional desktops as a risk. In 2008, only 3.7 million thin clients were shipped, compared with 300 million PCs, according to IDC.
That should start to change in 2009 as companies begin a number of test projects and in 2010 when large-scale commitments to the technology begin, Mr. O’Donnell said.
Wall Street firms looking to make things easier for employees and save money, especially in these tight times, are driving some of the early tests.
“Financial services companies in the U.S. are very interested in using thin clients,” said Scott Woodgate, director for the Windows business group at Microsoft.
Microsoft has developed its virtualization software and acquired a pair of software makers — Calista Technologies and Kidaro — whose products could complement thin client technology.
Looking ahead, the thin client model could creep into the home, with PC-like functions arriving via TV set-top boxes or through devices that plug into the back of televisions. Internet service providers have started to explore the idea of selling these products to consumers and then offering monthly subscriptions to computing services.
Consumers would benefit by buying a device that’s cheaper than a PC but can still tap into a full virtual computer back in a managed data warehouse.
“There are companies that are talking about peeling off an infinite number of virtual systems and renting them to consumers,” said Roger L. Kay, president of the analysis firm Endpoint Technologies. “This is an idea whose time has come, and the argument is growing every day in favor of thin computing of some sort.”
By ASHLEE VANCE
Published: October 12, 2008