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CyberSource faces uphill battle with not-so-thin clients

A new thin client offering from CyberSource intends to blur the line between thin and fat Linux clients, but one analyst wonders if the market is ready for -- or interested in -- such technology.

Australian open source vendor CyberSource Tuesday launched its new Linux-based TrimClient desktop line, which the company's product manager, Ron Fabre, described as a combination of a workstation PC and a system image server.

Thin clients are one of those ideas that sound really appealing but just haven't been deployed as widely as it seems they 'ought' to have had.
Gordon Haff,
principal analystIlluminata

One industry analyst, however, remained unsure yesterday as to whether the CyberSource technology would catch on, while a user with experience in the realm of thin clients said the new CyberSource product offered some interesting features, but he wasn't sure if such a venture would yield results.

Thin clients, or lean-clients, are low-cost, centrally managed computers devoid of frills like CD-ROM players, diskette drives and expansion slots. The idea is to limit the capabilities of these computers to essential applications only.

In CyberSource's case, the system server provides the TrimClient desktop PCs with its system and application software images. The TrimClient workstations run most applications locally, but load those applications off the system server.

"Unlike thin clients, which require expensive servers and slow your network with screen refreshes, TrimClients run their applications locally on industry-standard disk-less PCs," Fabre said. "[TrimClient users] cannot play around with any of the system or application software configurations."

Like thin clients, disk-less PCs and disk-less workstations - which were popular for a time in the Unix market - didn't have staying power, said Gordon Haff, principal analyst with Nashua, N.H.-based Illuminata.

"The problem people ran into is that partitioning for program files and so forth became a performance issue, [because that information] had to go back and forth over the network," Haff said. "I am not sure disk-less PCs have ever been a particularly promoted item by anybody."

CyberSource is marketing TrimClient as hardware that has "all the advantages of thin clients and none of the disadvantages," but Haff questioned whether customer demand was high enough make the technology a success.

"Thin clients are one of those ideas that sound really appealing but just haven't been deployed as widely as it seems they 'ought' to have had," Haff wrote in an e-mail correspondence with "Business as usual is certainly a major reason -- coupled with dropping prices of basic desktops."

Fabre stated that TrimClient systems are useful in locked-down and higher security environments, such as computer labs in schools and colleges, help desks and call centers, prison environments and various government arenas.

But Haff remained skeptical, citing speed and reliability issues.

"Performance can certainly be an issue with thin clients because multiple clients typically share a single back-end server network," he said.

Haff said there are two main reasons why thin clients have not been widely adopted by large companies:

The first is that thin clients are a more locked-down solution than fat clients. Administrators may like this, he said, but users often do not.

Secondly, thin clients require a methodical, architectural implementation, whereas regular PCs can be installed and added in a more ad hoc, incremental way -- even if they shouldn't be, Haff said.

Bryan Tidd, IT director for the city of Canton, Ohio, said the CyberSource client appeared similar to most thin client deployments, though it had additional local image features. Tidd said he uses both Linux and Windows thin clients for public safety and similar departments.

"Many Linux thin clients have a base read only memory with a browser, terminal emulation and such. CyberSource still uses Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) or Independent Computing Architecture (ICA) to access Windows Terminal services for additional applications. Basically, they have a server that provides the read-only image and a handful of applications.

"Most folks that want to take advantage of thin client technology do so to leverage server and network capacities and reduce administration. [CyberSource] seems to just add a few more things that can be done on the client than just capturing X-windows display broadcasts from a Linux server or firing off RDP or ICA clients," he said.

According to a release from CyberSource, TrimClients are able to run most of the applications presently used by businesses today. This includes Web-based applications, Linux, Windows (through Terminal Services or Citrix ICA), Unix (through X-Windows), VNC and all the main green-screen systems such as VT100, VT220 and 3270 mainframe access.

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