Welcome to a new section where PC Week will deliver hot columns from our US sister title, PC Week US. Each week we pick the best column from some of the IT industry's leading pundits. Remember if you agree or disagree with any point of view, let us know at pcweek.vnu.co.uk The thin client maze By Mark Van Name & Bill Catchings One of the fastest ways to get a headache is to try to sort through all the desktop computing options available today. We're not talking about just the huge array of different PCs, either. To a large degree, that's the easy part. The tricky bit is making sense of the many "thinner" options flooding the market. Dumb terminals, smart terminals, Java terminals, Windows terminals, thin clients, network computers, lean clients - the names and products keep on coming. To make matters worse, different vendors have different interpretations of what terms like "thin" mean. Each definition naturally just happens to serve its creator's marketing plan well. The result is that it's not easy to determine which, if any, of these options are appropriate for your organisation. To do so, you have to consider the interaction of three different types of information. The first, and perhaps most important, is the different classes of work goals of your users and the types of applications they need to reach those goals. Transaction workers, for example, typically have as their primary goal a high level of throughput of whatever transactions they conduct. An accounting group, by contrast, might most need high-speed access to financial data and the ability to quickly and easily manipulate large volumes of that data. For each goal, you need to understand the range of application styles that can help your users. To what degree is a host-based application suitable? How much of the work do the users need to do locally? How much, if any, local data storage is necessary or desirable? Understanding the answers to questions such as these will help you pin down the kinds of computing capabilities these users must have, as well as the kinds of optional features you'd like to offer. Any device type that provides those capabilities, and thus supports the application styles your users need to reach their goals, is worth a look. The second big area to consider is your organisation's current and future computing architecture, since any devices you buy obviously have to fit within that framework. Some potential mismatches are obvious. A shop with only NetWare servers, for example, won't have much use for Windows terminals. Other possible problems, though, are more subtle. An inexpensive, Java-capable box might sound attractive in a presentation, but take the time to make sure it fits your plans. The final factor is one that's always important with desktop systems: the balance between price, power and flexibility. A full-blown PC might be capable of doing anything most or all of the user groups need, and it might drop easily into all your planned architectures, but there's no point in incurring its expense if you don't need its power or flexibility. On the other hand, no one wants to saddle users with devices that simply aren't up to the tasks at hand. Keeping all three of these areas in mind as you work to pick the best desktop computing alternative is certainly a hassle, but if you want to skate on "thin" ice, you'd better get used to it. The situation is only going to get worse, because we're a long way from standard terms or even standard device classes. Mark L. Van Name and Bill Catchings can be reached via the Internet at [email protected] and [email protected]
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