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12/5/2006
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Thin's Back In

Thin clients, that is, and not just because they're cheaper and more eco-friendly - they're also more secure

Since last decade when I first became aware of a company called Clear Cube that pioneered the use of server blade technology for the desktop, I've been pointing to this as a possible future migration path.

In the emerging Web 2.0 world of hosted applications and services, the idea of a fully hosted desktop experience has been gaining momentum and support. Much of the focus has been on thin-client deployments driven by companies like Wyse, HP, and Neoware. With the spread of wireless broadband and WiMax on the horizon we've even seen the emergence of thin-client laptops like the MaxBook 810, Itona Gio and Xpe, and Neoware m100.

Use of both traditional thin clients and blades is growing, due largely to the fact that they eliminate many performance and cost disadvantages, while reducing concerns over uptime, power consumption, and security.

Because we focus on security here at Dark Reading and because I have a personal passion for energy conservation we'll touch on those two points in this piece.

Where Security's King, Traditional PCs Are Toast
This last year we've seen a number of embarrassing laptop thefts, each with lots of potential to damage an organization's business or good name. Under current rules these thefts (or losses) must be disclosed. And affected customers or partners don't appear to be cutting anyone much slack when it comes to lost, confidential information.

With the increasing possibility that lost data will result in civil and possibly even criminal charges, IT professionals are rightfully concerned that PCs are simply not secure enough.

Of course, a big part of the problem has been the lack of decent user authentication. OEMs have put biometric readers on laptops for some time and third parties like SanDisk have created convenient USB biometric devices, but they are often not used or are left non-configured. And in the case of a stolen laptop, biometric readers may not eliminate the need to report the theft even if the data remains encrypted and secure.

The only sure way to prevent exposure is to make sure the client device doesn't contain any data in the first place. Combined with adequate user authentication (otherwise the networked device is like an unprotected master key), a stolen thin client device has very little value.

Case in point: I recently learned about a number of thin-client devices that were stolen from offices in India. Unremarkable, except they were quietly returned after the thief discovered there wasn't much demand for empty devices on the black market.

Blades vs. Traditional Thin Clients
Thin-client computers are tied to a shared server resource and they are typically both I/O- and processor-bound. This makes them inadequate for most individuals used to traditional, that is, faster PC performance. However, they are more than adequate for data entry, many call-center applications, and for many attendants and systems administrators (who typically are working on remote systems anyway).

PC and workstation blades provide a comparable level of performance to a normal PC or workstation when coupled with a strong systems management product. The blades also provide a level of uptime and redundancy that traditional PC deployments can't touch. That is why you typically see this in healthcare, on trading floors, and in some scientific implementations.

Environmental Considerations
Blades and traditional thin clients have strong environmental benefits as well. They consume fewer resources and they typically both take up less space when disposed of and have fewer toxic metals. Much of the large physical structure for cooling and containing the blades is reusable and can remain in service for decades. Finally, because both the blades and the servers are centrally located, low-cost cooling solutions, like piped-in cool water, can be used where they wouldn't otherwise be practical.

Secondary benefits include reduction of heat and noise pollution in the workspace, along with the need to use costly engineering to remove or eliminate these problems. This too saves resources.

Both blades and thin clients have reached a level of maturity that, while they still aren't applicable for everyone, are superior solutions when security, noise, heat, and/or uptime are critical to your business.

Rob Enderle is President and Founder of Enderle Group . Special to Dark Reading

  • Clear Cube
  • Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HPQ)
  • Neoware Systems Inc.
  • SanDisk Corp. (Nasdaq: SNDK)
  • Wyse Technology

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