Thin-client computing was back in the news last week with a resurgent Sun taking on an army of Windows-based Terminal vendors.
Despite their differences, both camps have the same focus: moving hard-to-maintain applications from PCs to powerful, centrally managed servers.
Sun, which has struggled to sell its JavaStation concept, last week introduced the Sun Ray 1 Enterprise Appliance. While JavaStations were designed largely for new Java programs, Sun Ray is more realistic. The device can access data and applications on an array of servers, including Windows applications running on multiuser NT servers. From Microsoft partner Citrix Systems, Sun licensed software that accesses NT programs.
In contrast, the JavaStation was limited to some rudimentary Java business applets and to accessing Unix servers via X.11 software. JavaStations also included Java systems software on the client itself. The Sun Ray lacks even this, in order to stay as thin as possible.
Instead, Sun has client software, called Hot Desk, that handles only keystrokes, mouseclicks, pixel display and audio. On the server, Hot Desk takes care of everything else, including the graphical user interface.
As a result, a user can pull his smart card from his Sun Ray and move to another Sun Ray or to any other device with the Hot Desk code, Sun officials say. When the user plugs the card back in, the server will bring him back into the application precisely where he left it.
"This establishes a totally new architectural model," says David Jordan, a consulting engineer with a unit of network vendor Ericsson in Research Triangle Park, N.C. "People's personal information management data is maintained by a back-end server, but the information is always available through a wireless personal digital assistant or other similar thin-client device."
The elegantly curved Sun Ray 1 box, priced at $499, comes with a keyboard, a mouse and some systems software on a memory chip, and supports an array of VGA and high-performance color monitors.
Windows fights back
Last week also saw several product announcements at Citrix's iForum '99 conference in Orlando.
IBM and Hewlett-Packard unveiled new desktops, with IBM touting better priceperformance because it ditched its PowerPC processors for less-expensive Intel CPUs. HP's terminals targeted different classes of corporate users and offered a migration path to a Linuxbased terminal that could also independently access Unix, mainframe and Web applications.
The market for thin clients will explode, according to Eileen O'Brien, an analyst at International Data Corp. Thin-client vendors shipped 305,000 units during the first half of 1999, almost twice the number shipped in all of 1998.
O'Brien says the experience of the past few years confirms that thin clients are easy to use, save customers money and aid in information access. Last spring, an IDC report forecast that 1999 shipments will hit 1.2 million desktop units this year and six million by 2003.