Is thin really in?

Wyse Technology's Jeff NcNaught says thin-client computing offers a superior security model

Advocate says thin-client computers have a big, fat advantage over PCs in security, productivity

Thin-client computers'systems that don't hold any applications or data but run them off a central server'have been kicking around for a long time. A decade ago, Wyse Technology Inc. of San Jose, Calif., launched the first thin client to run Microsoft Windows software, called the Winterm 2000.

Jeff McNaught, Wyse's vice president of corporate strategy, co-invented the Winterm and has been one of the industry's most vocal proponents of thin-client computing.

Not that the IT world has always listened.

When the Winterm was introduced, the personal computer was still the center of the IT universe, with Intel cranking out faster and faster processors and Microsoft Corp. debuting the enormously successful Windows 95 operating system. The network had not yet risen to prominence.

Today things are different, and network-centric computing is king. Wyse has sold more than 3 million Winterms worldwide and continues to turn out new models. At the FOSE trade show in April, Wyse demonstrated its Winterm S30, a mini thin client based on a version of the embedded Windows CE operating system. Several other vendors also sell a variety of thin clients, including Hewlett-Packard Co. and Sun Microsystems.

McNaught says thin-client computing is now an ideal solution to many of government's most pressing IT issues, from security to consolidation and asset management. In an interview, he shared his observations with GCN.

GCN: Analysts are saying that over the next several years, the market for thin clients will grow faster than the market for PCs. Why now?

Jeff McNaught: One of the reasons we think this growth is so dramatic is because thin clients have been talked about from time to time throughout their history as different segments of the market have started to understand the story. Back in 1997, when there was the first real discussion about thin clients, it was companies like Federal Express who said this was a dramatic way to deliver better functionality to their users and not have to retrain everybody.

We saw the next blast in the 2000 space when Microsoft adopted the technology and delivered a rich terminal-services functionality in their products so that, with our other partner Citrix [Systems of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.], we had a solution that was really good from an application-support standpoint.

GCN: So what is it that enterprises, and government in particular, have come to understand about thin-client systems?

McNaught: Our mission is to develop very simple computing solutions that essentially shift the complexity from the desktop to the center of the network. That's especially key right now with the interest in security and protection of data, and theft and viruses. It's no wonder that government is starting to look at this technology as a far better solution than some of the other desktops. It's just a natural for the kind of security and confidentiality needs that exist [in government]'not to mention the fact that it dramatically reduces what the IT folks have to do.

GCN: Can you give us an example in government of where thin-client computing is well suited?

McNaught: In the post-9/11 era, departments like Homeland Security are using our technology because it is really secure. It delivers that eyes-only security model that is vastly superior to the things that have to be done on SIPRnet [the Defense Department's Secret Internet Protocol Router Network] right now with PCs.

Think about how SIPRnet works where these folks are sitting in front of one, two or three PCs, sometimes with removable hard drives. Every morning they come in and they need to check out their hard drive, plug it into their system and start it up. And every night when they go home they have to unplug their hard drive. So they lose productivity, and it's kind of annoying for the IT guy. More important for the IT staff is how can they update those drives with security patches, application updates and new policies? How can they do that when the drive is sitting in a safe?

If you look at thin clients overall, it's the best tool to simplify the tasks of the IT department so they can keep the secrets safe, keep the people productive and keep the costs down.

GCN: What do agencies need to look for in thin-client systems?

McNaught: Well, for example, we support the [Common Access Card], we support session mobility through the CAC, we support the kind of deployments that makes sense at DOD and DHS, like deployment on fiber, because you can't snoop a fiber. So we're attachable to the fiber networks. ... We support biometric security and multifactor security, and fingerprint readers; and we have a retina scanner we're working with. We also have terminal emulations to work with all the back-end systems'the Linux systems, the Unix systems'that are likely to be involved.

GCN: The Winterm S30 is pretty small. What's to keep someone from walking off with one in his or her pocket?

McNaught: There's absolutely nothing the agency loses, because the device doesn't store any data. In the early days, we found that because they were small, there was the concern that they would be taken home. What we found from a lot of customers that maybe one would be stolen, but that was the last to ever get stolen because people realized you couldn't connect it to anything.

GCN: So if thin clients are so great, why would anyone want a PC?

McNaught: The CIO wants to be able to control where an application is ultimately executed. In some cases a centralized model is the very best model. But in other cases a distributed model is a better model. The PC is a great tool for the home, and it's a great tool for a lot of applications like computer-aided design. But for what a lot of the world is doing today, it's really overkill.

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