Thin clients' fat challenge

Thin clients may face thin times over the coming months, but the arguments in their favour remain sound, reports E&T.

The gradual advance of the thin client has been one of IT's quieter revolutions, and one that tends to be cast in a subordinate role in debates around the future of Windows, Cloud Computing, and virtual desktops. Despite this it has the potential to radically reshape both the appearance and the economics of IT into the next decade.

It may also prove a significant influence on the destinies of those hardware and software vendors that have built their fortunes on the market models that have driven the desktop PC market since the late 1980s.

Yet, though the far horizon may look bright, thin clients' more immediate prospects are less rosily assured. The consensus among IT market analysts is that the thin client market faces a challenging 2010, primarily due to a combination of hardware upgrade deferrals and, in the longer term, the mobile enterprise phenomenon, which is likely to cut the number of enterprise personnel who work at a fixed location using a fixed computing resource.

Economic recession has caused annual growth in the global thin client market to fall from 11.4 per cent in 2008 to 7.2 per cent in 2009. This drop was due largely to enterprises withholding or delaying hardware refresh cycles to cope with budgetary pressures. Ovum managing analyst Vamshi Krishna Mokshagundam believes that economic recovery will drive "a fresh spurt of growth in the market", as enterprises continue to view thin-client computing as a credible alternative to desktop computing.

"Remote or mobile computing is expected to cut into the growth prospects of thin clients in the long term," Mokshagundam adds, "but the associated application mobility and infrastructure service costs will limit the proliferation to a considerable extent in the medium term."

Long-term prospects for thin clients, moreover, do seem to be "significantly jeopardised" by the surging popularity of netbooks, and Cloud Computing adoption - both of which "ease cost and accessibility issues hindering the move to mobile computing", Mokshagundam suggests. He predicts the annual market growth to peak in 2011, at 9.9 per cent, before stabilising at a moderate rate of 5.9 per cent in 2014.

However, at regional levels, thin-client shipments seem to be faring better, especially in the APEJ (Asia-Pacific excluding Japan) region, where desktop virtualisation has sparked renewed interest. IDC's latest Quarterly Thin Client Tracker Report saw 419,000 units shipped in Q1-Q2/2009, representing a 15.5 per cent increase over the same period of the previous year. Banks in China bought strongly from both domestic and multinational thin client suppliers in Q2, says senior manager of IDC Asia/Pacific's Personal Systems Group Reuben Tan.

Public sector procurement, driven by the education sector, also grew 47 per cent over 2008, with 23.3 per cent of all thin-client volume in APEJ. Tan adds: "[Spurred by] developments and improvements in desktop virtualisation applications, thin clients are also now able to gain a foothold in a significantly broader range of markets compared to the past; IT managers are increasingly starting to acknowledge that the long-term cost savings associated with a virtual desktop are maximised when the access point is converted into a thin-client-type device."

Thin client basics

The thin-client computing model differs from conventional client/server configurations in that it comprises compact processing units that depend largely on servers to perform their computational roles: so, unlike a standard PC, it manifests minimal technology at the desktop, consisting usually of just a small processing unit, input devices (keyboard, mouse), and a display.

Thin-client terminal devices have no moving parts, and function primarily providing users with a connection to data and applications hosted on a server. Migrating deployment, management, support, security, and execution of applications from the desktop to centralised servers provides easier IT administration, and reduces costs over the long term, advocates of thin client say.

The thin-client proposition is also informed by the fact that, in conventional enterprise client/server set-ups, users do not really need the storage, memory, expansion slots, interfaces, and optical drives that now come as standard with most desktop PCs, as well as with laptops used in desktop capacities. Even the latest-generation PC processors from the likes of Intel and AMD are not required to perform at anything like their optimum capability.

The massed ranks of so-called 'fat' clients filling our offices also mean that enterprises are repeatedly buying computing resources that are never needed, and that also swell their ongoing carbon profiles.

Storage is perhaps the most wasteful aspect of this scenario, with countless thousands of terabytes of hard disk space on drives in desktop PCs that are hardly, if ever, utilised. Very often such drives are 'locked down' (denied access) anyway to prevent users from copying data to them. Even many enterprise laptop PCs now are permanently moored to physical desktops.

Compared with fat PC clients, thin clients, without hard- or optical drives, or expansion slots, consume less power, and require components that are less complex. And in an era of 'clean desk policies', and ergonomic correctness, thin client terminals also occupy less physical space; some are integrated into the rear of a display unit, making them even less visible.

Thin versus 'fat'

As explained earlier, the advance of the thin client proposition rests to an important extent on scheduled enterprise technology upgrades, and this is allied to an important scheduling consideration. Very few established organisations are going to bring forward upgrade dates and junk an existing investment in fat PC clients just to reduce carbon profile. More likely, they wait until their installed base of desktop PCs reach the end of their assigned lifecycle, and are budgeted to be replaced.

In the light of economic forecasts an organisation may consider delaying scheduled upgrades, and 'sweating their assets' for a year or two longer.

At this point IT planners can, theoretically, decide whether to replace them with new PCs/laptops, or to migrate to thin-client replacements. Despite the arguments evinced by the thin-client vendors, this is not always a clear-cut choice. Going thin has repercussions elsewhere in the enterprise IT infrastructure, and savings in CAPEX and energy achieved at the desktop could result in a need for additional resources at the server end.

If an organisation decides not to upgrade desktop machines and sweat its assets for a year or two longer, however, it introduces additional and unpredictable risks of system failures caused by PC and servers becoming more likely to fail and breakdown; then there are the possible extra costs needed to prolong warranty periods to cover such eventualities.

According to analyst Quocirca, the impact of the financial situation will have major impacts on thin client computing installations. "Some organisations have retreated in to their shells, shelving anything that is seen as a 'nice to have', rather than a real necessity, and are choosing to stay with Windows XP on full PCs," says Clive Longbottom, the analysts' service director of business process analysis.

"However, many more have reached the point where XP is no longer seen as adequate for the business," Longbottom adds, "and the move to Windows 7 is coinciding nicely with the major fight for the virtualised desktop, with Citrix, VMware, and Microsoft all drawing battle lines."

Longbottom believes that 2010 will be "a good year for server-based computing driven by the need for greater control of data and for users to be able to have a consistent environment" - paving the way for even greater adoption in 2011.

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