UniForum regularly checks in with its Membership by way of an e-mail query on issues and topics of immediate concern and interest. Our latest venture into member opinion gathering was on network computing. Here's what we asked: Do you really understand what network computers, Net PCs and Thin Clients are all about? If you do, then tell us more: will you use or procure (them) and for what purpose? What will happen to your current computing environment if (they) are introduced (bandwidth problems?, bottom line impact?, mass resignations?).
We got a wide range of answers - from detailed reports, to "I think it's like this"; as well as one from a fervent PC user whose reply will amuse you. Here then are unexpurgated voices on the subject of network computing.
"Yes, I (my clients) will be using Network Computers (NCs), primarily as replacement for 'dumb' terminals (VT-100 et al.). This will allow much better interface to the host computer(s) and servers, with fewer problems normally associated with normal clients (software upgrades, compatibility, proprietary software problems, etc.). NetPC's will NOT be used, as they are merely another proprietary solution designed to maintain the Windows hegemony, and are barely better (probably worse) than just using PC clients.
The goal will be servers/hosts with an open architecture, easy to maintain and upgrade software, and an easy to use client interface - thus fewer problems to solve on the client end. PC's will of course still be in use as clients for those users requiring their own software base (independent of the server/host), or merely requiring more power and/or storage capabilities; but these clients should (eventually) constitute the minority, as most users with whom I've dealt just want machines that are easy to use and that provide solutions, not PC's that require an additional college degree.
Home use will be different, as most home users consider the PC as a form of entertainment, and in fact rarely use their computers for productive purposes (in my humble opinion). These PC's and clients (if networked) will continue to be multimedia entertainment centers and repositories of a multitude of games, financial software, Internet related programs, and office suites, mostly preloaded. For the home users who wish NO contact with a computer, the WebTV or equivalent will probably dominate; the NC may have an inroad here, as it could be easily adapted to compete with the WebTV.
<panic> Get away! I love my fat PC! Leave us alone so we can play.</panic>
My point of view concerning network computers, thin clients, etc. is that this development represents a partial return to the earlier centralized (legacy) computing models and offers an alternative to the more current desktop centered (with or without networks) models.
For the computing sophisticated this is not a very interesting model, but it may well help to put computing, Internet, intranet, web, etc. capabilities into the hands of those of us that are less computing sophisticated. In that sense it seems to be a good idea. Assuming that it does not reduce computing capability for those of us functioning at the high end of the computing spectrum (professionals and others), I tend to see it as an interesting thing to try.
In general, I think that any development that increases the diversity of computing and/or communications systems is good and anything that reduces this diversity is bad. I like to think about such topics in terms of evolutionary theory, complexity theory, artificial life models, and the like. Just as bio-diversity is good, I think that compu-diversity is also good. Just as the lack of bio-diversity tends to be unstable, I think that the lack of compu-diversity tends to be unstable.
Stuart H. Kasdan
New York, NY
Yes I understand!
No, it is not likely that I/we will procure them. In the engineering and software development business the added network bandwidth, increase in number of servers, etc. doesn't result in any savings. And, does result in many, probably most developers losing capability from their desktops. I also see a great deal of dissatisfaction arising in the ranks of engineers and software engineers when the capability to run tools and simulations decreases. We have already seen that these kind of technical people will tend to manage the computing resource (computing power, memory capacity) on their desk, but it tends to break down when the same people are asked to manage their part of the network.
Costa Mesa, CA
I would not say I know all about them, but I gather that, by the loose spec of a network computer, that anything from a properly configured X-Terminal to a 50 processor box could actually qualify. My take on thin clients is that they are largely stripped down PCs with only the software locally to boot from a file server host. The actual processing and video I/O is done on the thin client which means that there is a likelihood of needing to upgrade/replace each workstation every 3 or 4 years.
I will be going with X-Terminals from Tektronix and WinDD to allow an NT connection as well as my Unix connections. I have completed a pilot project with 10 units and am very satisfied with the results. The advantages of this approach are
- ALL software resides on the application server
- the user gets a 17" monitor with 12 or more Mb of memory of very high quality which does one thing and very well -- display and display I/O.
- If I need to upgrade the processors I can beef up the central server(s). Currently a dual-133 Pentium with 128 Mb memory, dual-scsi controllers with mirrored drives generally gives screaming performance for my 10 users, since most of the time only one or two are actually using much in CPU cycles.
- I can shadow any terminal's NT session remotely to support an application problem.
- I can login from home or anywhere and (although a little slow at 14.4K) become administrator and fix problems on the server.
- All users are equal which avoids a lot of petty jealousy. And if a workstation breaks, I simply replace it.
- I don't need to spend hours per each new PC to configure it. The X-Terminal configures in a few minutes.
Since we're switching from dumb terminals, the users will be pleased as punch, and since the NT performance will be so much faster than any user is likely to have at home (even with a Pentium Pro 200, since I'll be going dual-Pentium pro 200s with 192mb memory and very fast drives), they'll even be happy with speed.
As far as bandwidth, I don't expect too much of a problem since we're at multiple small sites, and the intersite traffic will actually be reduced to database access and mail transfers. At the main site I've already gone to a 100mb switch with 10 mb ports for each hub and server.
Santa Cruz, CA
In reply to your question my definitive answer is a firm yes and no. I have read a lot about them, have no practical experience with them and wonder what the real difference is between them and the old diskless workstation, that bombed?
We'll have more Member Views on different topics in future issues of UniNews online. If you'd like to submit a question you think would provoke informative responses on a key issue of the day, send it along to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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