On the face of it, the network computer (NC) is a network manager?s dream. As a means of managing and delivering an increasingly diverse cocktail of legacy and new applications to insatiable users, while retaining a degree of control over the desktop, it makes perfect sense.
It?s a rosy picture of integration, in which ageing mainframes, trusty Unix boxes, NT servers, legacy and new applications and a gamut of desktop devices co-exist in perfect harmony. Network traffic flows seamlessly. Users have access to the applications they need, when they need them. The network manager sits on high at the control console, fixing problems remotely. Meanwhile, the financial director draws satisfaction from figures which suggest that thin-client computing could bring cost of ownership per user down to as little as 20 per cent of the PC-based model. Furthermore, those redundant PCs gathering dust in the basement can be resurrected as NCs, giving new users low-cost access. Savings appear everywhere.
In truth, however, despite very real benefits to certain types of computing environment, the hype surrounding the advent of the thin-client architecture is something of a red herring for the average network manager. The NC has ridden in on the crest of the Java wave, promising economic, Web-based applications development and access on a limitless scale. That is of little interest to most network managers who are simply concerned with rationalising their environment in a way which gives them more control over how the network is used, while maximising its availability and efficiency for the user. In corporate computing, Java is still a technology for tomorrow. Today, Windows applications dominate, as recent research proves.
A survey conducted in the US for NC vendor Boundless Technologies found that, while 54 per cent think Java support would influence their decision to pursue a network computing strategy, only 7 per cent currently have such projects underway. In contrast, 84 per cent consider that Windows support would influence their network computer buying decisions.
As Boundless? vice president of global marketing, Michael Stebel, puts it: ?What companies need are network computers that will deliver access to Windows applications and allow them to begin taking advantage of the benefits of network computing, without fear of technical obsolescence once Java evolves into deliverable applications.?
But while network managers might be sold on the concept of network computing, few of them would be prepared to bet their entire strategy on an NC model. In reality, the sheer diversity of their environments makes a wholesale switch impossible. What is possible is a move towards a more truly integrated, manageable environment which protects existing investment while paving the way for future developments. Implemented on a small scale, network computing can combine immediate cost and management benefits with scope for expansion at the organisation?s own pace.
Through thick to thin
At domestic and disposable glove supplier, BM Polyco, the switch to new premises in North London gave the company an opportunity to decide on a new networking strategy virtually from scratch. Previously, a small community of around 30 users had accessed Unix-based applications from dumb Ascii terminals, with each department also sharing access to local PC applications.
?We looked at the cost benefits of both the PC and the NC model and decided on an NC strategy because of the additional benefits of simplified administration,? explains Neil Carter, BM Polyco?s systems manager. ?From my point of view, I am tied to my desk a lot more, and that?s a good thing. Installing new applications is easier because I don?t need to go around to each PC individually. It?s the same when it comes to fixing problems. I can access every desktop from my own. I feel more in control. There?s not much that goes on at the desktop that I don?t know about and it doesn?t take me long to identify and fix problems.?
BM Polyco has adopted Citrix?s Winframe thin-client/server system software to manage a mixture of PCs and Wyse Winterm NCs. In addition, remote users have been brought online, and redundant PCs have been given a new lease of life as remote NCs. A small number of occasional home workers and salespeople have dial-up access to server-based pricing and stock systems as well as email.
The network is configured for 10Mbits/ sec, but Carter estimates that it is only used at 10 per cent of its capacity at present. ?This solution suits us well, because we don?t use many power applications,? he says. ?If we were running a lot of graphics applications, it might not be so suitable. The users wouldn?t be happy if the network was running slowly, but 99 per cent of the time it?s running almost too quickly. That?s good for us because we have oodles of bandwidth to spare and great scope for expansion. Most important of all, we can now implement what we want, how we want, when we want. We aren?t tied in to an old style of network strategy.?
Battle-weary network managers might envy Carter his fresh start. In most organisations, the mix of legacy systems and desktops is considerably more complex and difficult to manage. Network computing will never be a panacea but it does, at least, provide a framework for greater control.
Russell Allen, technical support manager at car rentals organisation Eurodollar, says the story doesn?t end with a network computing strategy. That?s just the beginning. ?There are some big challenges,? he says. ?The model is still emerging and new products are coming out every week. You have to review your infrastructure constantly. Are you providing the right levels of network bandwidth? What applications do you want to run? Have you chosen the right tools for the job? Certainly, the thin-client model makes managing the total environment simpler. For a start, the users can?t amend their desktops in a manner that doesn?t fit the standard profile. We know how difficult it is to manage a large number of Windows PCs, compared with thin clients which you only have to set up once.?
Controlling the desktop
In the UK, Eurodollar has about 1,000 users. Each of its branches has its own SCO-based Unix server, but users also need access to central applications, ranging from the corporate intranet to the fleet reservation system, Lotus Notes and various office automation tools.
?The network computing model has helped us to regain control of the desktop,? says Allen. ?We don?t have to worry about whether everyone has the latest version of Office on their desktop, for example. In management terms, it delivers real competitive advantage.
Allen feels that there hasn?t been a massive difference in the volume of traffic crossing the network, but it does seem to have become more predictable. ?We know what?s being deployed. Most of our users are either dealing with customers or carrying out large volumes of data entry, and we now know when they download their own applets and when the peak times are for data transfer between our branches and the central server,? he says.
However, he does issue a word of warning: ?Any organisation deciding on thin-client architecture needs to regularly review the appropriateness of that decision. What works well on a 10Mbits/sec LAN will not necessarily be suitable over the wide area. Each decision has to be taken on its own merit,? he explains.
Absorbing the thin client into the existing infrastructure by degrees is the method favoured by many IT managers, not least because it allows them to prove the merits of the architecture to potentially cynical directors who might be wary of anything which appears to erode their own desktop autonomy.
At manufacturing company B&W Loudspeakers, NCs from HDS have been deployed alongside PCs using Insignia?s Windows applications server Ntrigue to provide common access to centrally-held applications for some 200 users.
?We had two priorities,? says IT manager Andy Cowell. ?We wanted to reduce the support and administration burden of conventional desktops, while providing everyone with the same software, at the same time and as easily as possible.? Cowell says that the company was not in a position to go out and replace everything and the advent of the NC has proved a pleasant surprise. ?With Ntrigue, we can run all our current Windows software centrally so, whether users are on a true NC or a PC, they can still access the same central systems.?
Using the emulation capabilities in the HDS desktop solution, remote users also have dial-up access to core Unix applications. Like Allen, Cowell hasn?t encountered a radical change in the way the company?s network is used. ?It really doesn?t make a lot of difference,? he says. ?Traditionally in network management, you are concerned about peaks and troughs in usage. With network computing, the traffic is more proportional to the number of users on the system. It rises steadily as each user comes on.?
While Cowell doesn?t believe network computing is the be-all and end-all, he feels that the problems of cost of ownership and support should be addressed: ?It?s crucial to the way we work as an IT department. Everyone will have their own particular reasons for implementing NCs. For us, it can do away with certain problems, such as asset management and software distribution, leaving us free to concentrate on the important things: a high quality of service and systems availability for our users.?
A place in the network
The hype surrounding network computing will run and run. But, as each of these examples clearly demonstrates, we aren?t living in an either/or world. The NC will have its place, whatever some pundits say, and the demise of the PC certainly isn?t going to happen in the foreseeable future. Investment must be protected. That?s why legacy systems still run on mainframes, Unix has not been displaced by NT, and Java is unlikely to erode Microsoft?s elephantine market at the speed at which its champions would like to hope.
The network manager?s task is to facilitate the smoothest, most efficient means of linking these disparate technologies. And, if the network computing architecture provides a much-needed means of achieving that, its long-term future is bright indeed.
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