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Face-off: Thin clients vs. fat clients

When it comes to clients, one editor says "thin" shouldn't be a four-letter word; another argues that fat clients unleash creativity. Read their opinions and make up your mind.

When it comes to clients, one of our editors says "thin" shouldn't be a four-letter word. After all, he argues,...

thin clients are cheaper, more secure and fit perfectly in a browser-based world. Still, the real benefit of fat clients is that they unleash people's minds to do creative -- and productive -- things with technology. Which argument do you believe? After reading both cases, be sure to use our SoundOff! feature to make your opinions known.

Think thin (clients)

By Jim Connolly, Executive Editor

In a world where thin is beautiful, I have to wonder why "thin" client is a four-letter word. For years, end users have bared fangs and strung barbed wire around their desks at the thought of surrendering their full-function desktop. Even IT managers -- those who stand to benefit the most from more secure PCs and less costly desktops -- hear "thin client'' and their legs turn to Jello.

Don't think of thin client computing as evil. The concept simply has been the victim of hype and some blown strategies. Microsoft's unloved Network PC (look in the dictionary under "oops'') did more to advance the cause of fat clients than Microsoft's Windows ever could. Even vendors that have rolled out some successful thin-client strategies have done so with a marketing brush broader than Chicago's shoulders. They have pitched thin clients as replacements for every PC running every application for every user. It doesn't work that way. Thin clients are right for some people, and the sea shift that we have witnessed in new applications has made the thin client right for many more corporate users.

Look through any organization, and you will see how many employees just don't need a full-function PC. In the years since thin clients stepped onto the scene, browser-based e-mail, collaboration tools and enterprise production applications have been born and grown to age. It wasn't that long ago, a coworker recently pointed out, that loading Lotus Notes on a PC meant wrestling with something like 27 diskettes. In the 1990s, legacy production applications such as inventory, accounting and customer service were fattened up for the PC side of client/server computing. The thought was that everything needed to look and feel like Windows.

That left the typical corporation with thousands of desktops with disks full of Windows utilities and a full load of Microsoft Office. Throw in a couple of in-house applications, and you have an overpriced, under-used virus catcher just waiting to die from planned obsolescence. Oh, and what are 67.9% of those corporate users doing with these beasts? (My boss always says that you can sell any made-up statistic as long as you add the decimal point!) They are working with forms as part of an enterprise application, writing basic documents and e-mailing. Hello! Sounds like little more than the ultimate thin-client computing model: a dumb 3270 terminal tied to a big old mainframe.

The one capability that we didn't have on those green screens that is crucial for corporate users is a revolutionary thing called a browser. Let's see, it's a lightweight application that grabs a bunch of data off some server and presents it in display-only format. Wouldn't that be the definition of thin-client computing?

Rather than fear thin-client computing, IT and the user community need to embrace it and extend it beyond the office walls. Yes, I will still cling to my eight-pound notebook with my bloody little fingers if our IT guys try to reclaim it. But I'll encourage IT everywhere to give their users "thin'' access to corporate data and applications from anywhere. The emergence of browser-based applications and the change in work habits that go with them are what thin-client computing is all about. I don't need a notebook packed with Excel for a quick e-mail check from home or the airport. I don't want to wait and wait while anti-virus packages and log-on scripts do their thing just because I want to read a Word document.

The thin client isn't the greatest thing since sliced bread, but it has a role in the corporate world, and we have to think of it as an opportunity -- not the devil.


Fat is phat

By Dave Gabel, Contributing Editor

I know all the arguments: Thin clients cost less. They're easier to manage. They let you standardize the user interface across the company. Thin clients are just better.

I'll give you savings, standardization and simplicity. But those alleged benefits are irrelevant because fat is actually where it's at. And, in the lingo popular with the younger set today, thin clients definitely aren't phat.

You could call a fat client a personal computer. Given that definition, take a minute and think about what you could do with a personal computer. I'll wait here.


Bet you came up with a lot of possibilities. You can do all sorts of productivity things. You can save your own schedule. You can build a tickler file in any number of applications so you keep track of ongoing projects. You can use a spreadsheet as a word processor. (I don't know why you'd want to do that, but it works for some people, and it makes them more productive). The point is that neither you nor I know everything that someone will do with a personal computer, a.k.a. a fat client. And that is the real benefit of fat clients. They unleash people's minds to do things no one even knew they could do.

Now think about this: What else can you do with a thin client?

No need for me to wait since I can answer the question for you. You can do with a thin client only what the admin who set it up thought you should be able to do with it. In other words, nothing.

The argument for thin clients is all about corporate efficiency. Support costs are lower. In some cases, communications overhead is greatly reduced, saving bandwidth to do more stuff. But what stuff? Only that which the IT department says you can do. If you're denied access to a spreadsheet because it's decided that you don't need it, then you don't get that productivity enhancer. And so forth.

Various studies say that thin clients are the best way to handle computing in the enterprise today. But various studies also say that large corporations are best at delivering products to consumers. Look what happened to General Motors when various Japanese manufacturers entered the U.S. auto market in the '70s.

"Central control" used to be the catchphrase of those who thought efficiency is the best way to administer any number of endeavors. Whole countries developed systems based on centralized control. Which would you prefer: an economy based on freedom of action or one based on central control? USSR or USA?

Back in the late '70s and early '80s, Apple, with its little Apple II computer, chipped away at the idea of central control in corporate computing. Now that idea is back, in the form of thin-client computing. But is it better?

Not a chance.

For me, thin ain't in. Fat is where it's at.

Dave Gabel is a freelance technical journalist with more than 25 years' experience in electronics, computers and information technology.


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