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MICROCLIENTS:  THIN ENOUGH?  RICH ENOUGH?

Is corporate computing better off when end users have powerful Windows machines or relatively powerless thin clients? The answer is Yes.  For the past couple years, computer makers have offered technology that lets users choose what kind of client they see when they boot up, but the vendors did a terrible job of selling this versatile concept.  Now, however, things are starting to change.  Microclient technology, which turns wide-open PCs into locked-down terminals, works well.  One more thing: It is nearly free.

So just what is a microclient? It is a mix of hardware and software that turns any computer into a tightly managed Web appliance with a small collection of applications.  So it is pretty secure.  It is also quick.  On a typical computer (whether laptop or desktop), a microclient can boot up in something like 15 seconds and it runs as lightning fast.  The applications built into microclients provide Web browsing, cloud email, instant messaging, Internet telephony, and virtual desktop computing (as defined by Citrix Systems, Microsoft, or VMware).  To keep the environment stable, predictable, and secure, the microclients don't let users change applications.  Any changes in microclients come from their creators, their computer vendor resellers, and, in the future, very possibly software and services providers who want to add special features that tie microclients to, for instance, ERP applications suites.

Microclients are still new, evolving, and changing shape.  For now, as a first approximation, you might want to think of a microclient as an iPad without the Apple Apps Store .  .  .  but with a keyboard and a mouse and a Skype phone.

Currently, computer makers (and at least one supplier of motherboards sold via retail as well as industry channels, Asus) favor microclients based on the Splashtop family of products from DeviceVM.  But there is also an alternative called Hyperspace.  Hyperspace was developed by Phoenix Technologies.  In June, Hewlett-Packard bought Hyperspace for $12 million, but if has not integrated Hyperspace into its product line.  HP still offers Splashtop derivatives on its various products.

Both microclient systems are built on Linux and both are aimed at users of machines that run Windows when they are not in the microclient environment.  Splashtop has setup and configuration software that requires Windows (XP or later).  Users make adjustments to their Splashtop setup while it is dormant.  There are some configuration options available within Splashtop, but some tasks, such as password management, are done from outside, as if Splashtop is an application, not a complete operating environment.  So even though users are running Linux when they boot to Splashtop, the package isn't yet available for Ubuntu or any of the other client-oriented Linux distros.  (Once set up via Windows, Splashtop can be run on a machine that multi-boots into Windows, MacOS, Linux and Solaris.)

Hyperspace is also tied to Windows, perhaps even more closely than Splashtop.  During installation, Hyperspace depends on Microsoft's partition management software to rope off part of the target computer's boot drive for its use.  Like Splashtop, even though it also is written to share a system with Windows, it can probably be set up to work on a multi-boot system.

One distinction between Hyperspace and Splashtop is the use of virtualization in Hyperspace to allow a computer with hardware virtualization support to boot Windows at the same time Hyperspace starts up.  The two operating systems can be alive simultaneously and uses can flip back and forth between them.  By contrast, a user running Splashtop must shut down that environment to go to Windows.  However, by using Windows hibernation along with Splashtop the transition can be accomplished without having to close Windows applications.  It is not clear whether this distinction will make much different to ordinary business users, who might well see no point in bouncing between big Windows and small Linux.

For IT managers who just want their end users' machines to come to their servers using secure, consistent thin clients, Splashtop technology is a pretty good place to start.  This is particularly true for companies whose end users are mobile.  Microclient technology is very widely available for portable computers ranging in power from the lightest 10-inch netbooks up to portable workstations with the heft to run CAD applications, financial simulations or video editing packages.  Any current or recent desktop machine can be equipped with microclient technology, with versions of Hyperspace being built from scratch for aftermarket installation.  Splashtop, by contrast, really needs some hardware support and it's not clear whether it can run in machines that were built without it in mind; it seems as if it would need some BIOS support that has to be baked in to a computer right from the start.

If a company is buying new PC, microclient technology is available from pretty much every major vendor, but it is not available for every model from every vendor.  It is generally an option on some business class laptops from HP, Dell, Lenovo, Asus, Acer, Sony, and others.  It is pretty widely available on Asus netbooks and nettops and on workstations based on Asus motherboards.  (Asus supplies high end motherboards for desktop machines but doesn't sell complete workstations.)  Microclient technology has not found its way into business desktop systems from the major manufacturers.

Most PC vendors are reluctant to talk about their microclient offerings.  One reason is that the technology is changing so fast.  But Dell, which was an early proponent of Splashtop's ideas, has provided relatively more support data than its rivals.

A year or so back, Dell went with an implementation for its laptops that sat on a card about an inch square, similar in size to the cards used to provide wireless networking.  Dell promoted its initial product under the name Latitude On, restricting it to its Latitude line of business class laptops.  The feature included its own CPU, which was an ARM processor from Texas Instruments, and some flash memory to hold Linux, a bunch of applications, system data and some user-controlled settings. The flash memory also gave the feature some storage space; the laptops disk was not part of the configuration. Dell offered the feature for about $200 list.  (Dell corporate accounts generally get significant discounts from list price, but each corporate deal has its own shape.  This makes it hard to say just what the feature actually costs.)  Like most other vendors offering a microclient, Dell seemed to emphasize the fast boot more than the thin client security.  Between that off-key pitch and what was perceived as a high price, the feature was not a barnburner.

This year Dell revamped the offering, renaming it Latitude On Flash and implementing it in a way that used some BIOS settings to allow a suitably configured laptop to boot up using its main CPU along with a bunch of flash memory on a card.  The gadget is as ARM-less as Venus de Milo.  The flash is configured to provide read-only storage for the Dell version of Splashtop plus a bit of SSD capacity.  Like its predecessor, this implementation of Latitude On did not use the host platform's hard drive.  If a user needs some storage to use in conjunction with the thin client, he must plug USB memory or a USB hard drive into the laptop.  That microclient is not allowed to touch the Windows system's disk.  Getting rid of the ARM helped Dell drop the price to $60 list.  It is not unusual for buyers to get 30 percent off Dell list price, bringing the price of the thin client implementation down to something like 42 bucks.

Dell seems to be willing to work some customers on special implementations of its Linux stack.  To make that easier, Dell gives every buyer who gets the feature on a new machine the source code for Latitude On Flash.  Anyone who adds the microclient as an afterthought can download the source code from Dell's support site.

Dell's position suggests that it views buyers of its premium Latitude machines as members of a cohort that includes a fair number of sophisticated customers.  Last time I looked – these things seem to change all the time – the armored Latitudes (models with magnesium rather than plastic cases) were being offered with warranties, support contracts and even accidental damage insurance plans that ran as long as five years.  For buyers who buy into Dell's premium coverage, microclient technology seems like it ought to be a must.  Even if a machine cannot be booted into Windows, it might be able to start up in lightweight Linux.

Shops that prefer HP, Lenovo, Sony, LG, Acer, or Asus laptops to Dell models can find that each of these vendors offers machines with some kind of Splashtop microclient.  The implementations vary, but all of them include at least two ways for a user to work with a corporate server: a Web browser (which would be based on Firefox 3) and a remote client (which would be able to cooperate with any of the big three virtual client systems, Citrix XenApp, VMware View, and Microsoft Remote Desktop).

Companies that want to make a transition to thin clients are unlikely to buy every user a costly Dell Latitude laptop.  But other vendors offer desktop Windows machines that can be booted into a thin Linux environment using a variation on the Splashtop software that Dell so heartily endorses.  Shops that don't need a lot of muscle on the desktop can get nettop boxes, small computers that use Intel Atom chips or other low power (and low cost) CPUs that, despite their modest specs, can run Windows XP or Windows 7 when they are not in Splashtop mode.  Nettop computers, like netbooks, can cost half as much as common desktop machines.  They generally have very low TCOs because they run cool, have less in them to break and, as long as they can be rebooted in microclient mode, they don't require the immediate intense effort from support teams a standard PC requires.

IBM and Oracle, which sell servers and don't sell clients, have been trying for years, without success, to get customers to move processing (and the revenue it generates) away from the desktop and back to central systems have thus far managed to treat the microclient as if it is just another example of the thin clients they failed to sell in the past.  But HP and Dell, maybe Lenovo and maybe some of the other vendors, too, seem to have spotted a difference here.

It can't cost very much to put the equivalent of Latitude On Flash into a laptop, desktop, netbook or nettop.  The gizmo Dell is offering for 40-something bucks (or less) probably could be made a standard part of every Dell PC with almost no visible impact on manufacturing cost.  If the technology becomes a standard item, as HP seems to think it might, user companies will be able to decide for themselves which clients should be thin, which ones should be rich, and when user groups should be moved from one mode of computing to the other.

— Hesh Wiener June 2010


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