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The Return of the Thin Client

The Independent Consultant

The Return of the Thin Client

by Daniel K. Kehoe

O happy day: the thin client is back.

And it's about time. Trying to figure out on which computer or handheld device you downloaded that spreadsheet you need is getting old. And from which computer–home or office–did you send that memo you need to resend? For those of us living in POP3 mail world, the computer you were on when you last read your e-mail is likely where the files you need are sitting.

Way back when, everything was on the mainframe, or its younger cousin, the minicomputer. If you didn't drive down to the office and fire up your old dumb terminal, you couldn't get to the data. The industry freed us up to store our own junk independent of the mainframe when the PC came out in the 1980s. As Windows and MacOS matured and became more powerful in our laps than the original mainframe was sitting in its air-conditioned haven, we got crazy and started doing all our computing disconnected. In our snazzy laptop bags we carried every document we ever created; convenient, but bad if you left your bag on the bus.

Enter client-server computing, allowing the mainframe/minicomputer to act as a server, storing what we couldn't fit on our laptops and offering up mission-critical applications and customer databases. Client-server worked great–as long as you were in the office. We could haul our laptops home, but when we needed to access the data in the office, things got tricky. The best we could do was dial in and copy information back and forth and work on it where we were at the time, but with slow dial-up and floppy-based "sneaker net," one wondered whether any real business productivity gains were won.

The advent of the Internet, and specifically high-speed Internet at home and abroad, bridged the dial-up telecommunications shortcomings and brought the convenience of in-office connectivity all the way out to the home or hotel. Applications such as pcAnywhere and Internet services such as GoToMyPC made it possible to crunch your spreadsheet on the PC in your office, while the screen displays to your laptop waiting at Gate A3 at O'Hare. While these offerings work well, don't overlook Microsoft's Terminal Services and Remote Desktop Connection (similar to Remote Assistance) as an increasingly popular means for displaying desktops across WANs and LANs in the Microsoft world.

We've seen this movie this before. Back in mainframe days, the big machine did all the work, then dumped a screen full of characters representing the customer record on the terminal. The terminal was in essence a very thin client to the fat mainframe server. As terminals became PCs and took on more processing (they might use their local PC to render a graphical map based on a few bits of data sent from the server), the clients became fatter. For awhile there, PCs were getting so powerful that the servers trimmed down to just serving up data and printers.

As the fast telecommunications offerings continue to improve, robust servers in offices will likely be in fashion again. All your e-mails, spreadsheets, file backups and documents can live there safe and secure, because you can access them from just about anywhere with your thin client, whether it's a PC, a handheld unit or even a phone. Now that's déjà vu all over again.

Daniel K. Kehoe is president of Bigfoot Labs in Connecticut. He has more than 27 years experience in the computer industry in technical and marketing roles, most recently with Compaq Computer Corporation.