This is the age of the network computer (NC), but apart from loweringf network support staff shouldn't be your only considerations. VNU European Labs reviews six NCs to whet your whistle. costs and easing the burden of network support staff, what else should influence your buying decision? During the past year, the NC market has diversified, almost to the point where the words network computer mean an alternative, low-cost computing device, compared with the traditional desktop PC.
The IT industry is awash with such terms as thin client, fat client, NC, Windows-based terminal (WBT), NetPC, and lately Intel's lean client.
If nothing else, this has confounded IT directors and network managers.
The NC, in any of its various guises, lowers total cost of ownership and eases the management burden placed on network support staff. But because the market has become so diversified, the next question becomes what type of NC to use?
The NC concept means different things to different people. For instance, to some it spells the end of the brief client-server era. The NC, however, could be just the thing to help realise the full potential of client-server computing by providing a cost-effective platform for a wide range of applications.
In this environment, it shifts the balance of power away from desktop clients to various server types.
The traditional desktop PC, with its vast storage and memory requirements needed to run today's operating systems and goliath applications, is now classified as a fat client. Conversely, NCs are referred to generically as thin clients.
The behemoth that we have come to know is becoming too unwieldy and the costs involved in support and maintenance are getting out of hand. The idea of the NC is simple - the client workstation has minimum processor and memory resources, plus a small, local hard disk for temporary storage of applications. These applications are downloaded from the server via a Web browser or some other simple interface when required, and run locally.
All user data is then stored on the server and all applications deleted when the session is finished.
The original idea was to relieve the client of all the storage and processing required by today's desktop operating systems and applications, shifting the emphasis to the application server and the network. This created a central point of administration for the network manager and reduced the cost of ownership of the client stations. IT buyers were quick to realise that the initial purchase cost of the equipment was only a small part of the total cost of ownership.
The Java link to the NC was perfect for Sun, setting up the Java Station as the quintessential NC. Problems in the development of the Java chip, which was to power this new range of thin clients, delayed Sun's initial product release.
Other vendors have been quick to jump on the NC bandwagon and identify other areas in which to expand the role of the simple NC. The most obvious area was the long overlooked dumb terminal market. There are still millions of IBM 3270 terminals in use worldwide which give users access to 70 per cent or so of the world's data that is still stored on mainframes.
With dumb terminals there is no client software to administer or maintain, with applications held centrally on the host, keeping down the cost of ownership. For this reason, many sites, still ruled by legacy systems, have resisted a wholesale move to PCs, restricting them to just those users who require the extra functionality and processing power required by desktop productivity or other client-server applications.
For many such sites, the NC has come as a breath of fresh air, allowing them to embrace modern technology without all the costs involved in PC management.
Furthermore, they can retain centralised management practices and avoid the heavy administrative burden of software distribution to each desktop.
They can also supply users with a single interface to all applications, including legacy, client-server and the new wave of Java internet/intranet applications. With its ability to connect to various hosts, the NC has become the ultimate universal client platform to many businesses.
While many vendors decided to extend the original functionality of the NC by providing it with terminal emulation, mainframe access, Unix integration and X-Windows support, others decided to concentrate on niche areas. And thus, the WBT was given life and brought forth to muddy the waters further.
WBTs have been around since the earlier 90s - a few years before the conception of the NC. But the full functionality and benefits of WBTs have only been realised since the introduction of the NC.
The WBT is similar to the original NC specification, with minimal processor and memory resources, minus the local storage. As the name implies, a WBT is used to connect to a Windows NT server. But unlike a traditional installation of Windows NT, the server runs a modified version of the operating system that allows multiple users to connect and run an application on the actual server.
Operating systems like Citrix Winframe offer this multi-user Windows NT functionality - Citrix has also licensed the code to Tektronix, Insignia and NCD. While the applications are run solely on the server itself, display and mouse information are transmitted over the network to the terminal by means of the independent computing architecture (ICA), again developed by Citrix.
Microsoft's latest project, Hydra, is a multi-user version of NT 4 that will provide the user with all the additional functionality of NT 4 with the server-centric advantages of the WBT. Hydra will ship with its own version of ICA, known as T-Share, but Citrix will still develop the ICA protocol now known as pICAsso that can be used instead.
Not to be outdone by these alternative clients, Microsoft and Intel teamed up to produce the NetPC reference specification. Essentially, a NetPC is a standard desktop PC without a floppy drive or CD-Rom, but still uses standard commodity processors and memory, running Windows 95 and connecting to NT servers.
The client OS and applications are still stored and executed locally, but the emphasis is shifted to a centralised, server-based administration and data storage.
The latest specification to burst forth into the world of network-centric computing is the lean client from Intel. Initial impressions of this new specification suggest an expansion of the WBT to encompass a wider range of server operating systems, while retaining the server-based application execution and processing.
Intel hopes its lean client system design guidelines and network server configuration guidelines for lean clients will enable OEMs to deliver integrated, end-to-end systems based around a common computing foundation.
The emphasis is now on the network and the application servers. If implemented properly, with some thought on design, availability and scalability, the network infrastructure should not cause many problems. The only weak link in the chain is perhaps Windows NT; Microsoft has still to address such issues as scalability, availability, reliability and performance. There are a number of third-party products that address availability issues.
If you choose to implement Citrix Winframe, this also provides load balancing for multiple servers.
On the whole, these specifications have done nothing more than confuse all concerned. But the underlying strategy and overall goal is to reduce the total cost of ownership of client workstations and provide easier, centralised management and administration.
It's unclear which specification will come through as an overall as each fits a specific user requirement. While not replacing the conventional desktop carte blanche, network computing will complement today's network environments.
Tarantella - it's not just an Italian jig
Some of the problems surrounding the deployment of NCs is having to recode applications for the new network-centric environment and compatibility problems with existing code. As well as being time-consuming, having to recode applications is also costly. But what if there were some way of deploying existing applications into an NC environment without the fear of code incompatibility or having to recode everything?
The answer lies in something called an application broker. More specifically, what you need is Tarantella, from SCO. Tarantella is an application broker for network computing that ensures users have access to the latest applications and data, wherever they are on the network, regardless of their client device. SCO's Adaptive Internet Protocol (AIP) ensures optimal network performance, however users are connected.
Currently, Tarantella runs under SCO's own Unix OS for Intel platforms and Sun Solaris. Other versions of Unix are also planned, as is an NT version. Multiple Tarantella servers can be used, not only to implement a degree of redundancy and fault-tolerance, but also for load balancing to alleviate bottlenecks and assist network performance. In less critical environments, Tarantella can also reside on the same server as the applications it will publish, thus minimising hardware resources.
The basic idea behind Tarantella is simplicity itself - applications are published on the Tarantella servers and the users across the network access these applications through a standard Web browser. As an application is launched, Tarantella executes the desired program from its appropriate server, and relays everything to the users' Web browser.
The good thing about Tarantella is that it isn't specific to NCs or other thin clients, but will work with existing desktop PCs, notebooks and also the new range of Windows CE-based palmtop PCs as well. In fact, Tarantella is compatible with virtually any type of Java-based client device, from NCs and PCs, to cellular phones and PDAs.
With Tarantella, there are no conversion costs and no need to overhaul your existing IT architecture. Your computing model simply evolves to exploit the internet. Whether it is client-server or host-based, Tarantella fits into your IT infrastructure and brings you the benefits of fast application deployment and reduced administration costs.
Boundless Technologies' Viewpoint TC200 is the largest network computer in this benchtest, resembling a slimline PC rather than the numerous tiny modules that go towards making up today's NCs. It is, however, not as big as a proper desktop PC - after all, isn't that one of the objectives?
The TC200 is Boundless Technologies' answer to the WBT and provides connectivity to all the various multi-user Windows incarnations, including Hydra, by way of the ICA protocol developed by Citrix. Although this protocol does not demand an enormous amount of processing power, the Viewpoint TC200 is built around a 133MHz 5 x 86 processor and comes with 4Mb of Ram as standard which can be upgraded to 64Mb.
4Mb Flash Ram and 1Mb of video Ram complete the specification. All this may sound like overkill for a simple WBT, but by way of an optional software module, and if necessary an internal hard disk, the Viewpoint TC200 can be upgraded for internet/intranet environments or Java applications.
As you would expect, a range of ports is available at the rear of the unit. These comprise two 9-pin serial ports, a parallel port, two PS/2 connectors for a mouse and keyboard, a video connector and a 10Base-T network connector; optional 10Base-2 and 100Base-T network ports and a Token Ring module are available if required.
There is also a standard 3-pin power connector; unlike the other NCs in this benchtest, this is the only model not to have a separate external power supply. Furthermore, this is also the only system to provide PC-style expansion by way of a 16-bit ISA slot and a 32-bit PCI slot, along with a Type-II PC card smartcard slot.
Management of the Viewpoint TC200 is accomplished by way of the aptly named Viewpoint Administrator software and provides the network administrator with a clean, simple interface for managing all Viewpoint devices across the network from the administrators' own workstation connected to the network.
Better known for its range of excellent colour printers, Tektronix also has a video and networking business that produces a range of NCs. The 200 series is probably the most modular, expandable system in this benchtest.
The model sent in for this review was the NC217.
The NC217's front panel has an on/off button and power LED. The left-hand side has a variety of audio connections for headphones, a microphone and audio in and out. The usual array of connectors - two serial, two PS/2 for keyboard and mouse, parallel, video, 10Base-T network connection and power.
Options for the NC217 include 10Base-5-, 10Base-2- and an autosensing 10/100Base-T network connection, PC card slots, and an Mpeg-1 digital video card along with a small video camera - Tektronix also has a presence in the video conferencing market. This range of options demonstrates the versatility of these devices in comparison to their bloated desktop PC counterparts. Neoware Systems also has a video conferencing-enabled NC, although this is the company's high-end solution.
A plastic surround overshadows all of the connections and expansion ports.
While this covers all the unsightly cables, it also acts to increase the surface area of the NC217 and provides a suitable monitor stand.
The NC217 comes with 8Mb of Ram as standard, expandable to 128Mb. The NC217 provides connectivity to multi-user Windows applications by way of Tektronix WinDD product and offers a range of host connectivity options, including Sun, Hewlett Packard, Digital, RS/6000 and SGI, along with support for a host of terminal emulations and Java support and a local Web browser courtesy of Navio.
All this connectivity is provided by Tektronix NCBridge application.
Versions for both NT and Unix are available - the Unix manual is about twice as thick as that for NT. This software also provides you with an interface for managing and configuring the range of NCs from Tektronix.
Last year, HDS changed its name to Neoware Systems to reflect a shift from a pure hardware vendor to a more software-based company. The NeoStation 540 is one of the latest products that reflect the change in the company's thinking.
Offering a different style from the other NCs in this benchtest, the NeoStation 540 can either be mounted flat or on its side. The front of the unit has the obligatory on/off switch, along with headphone and microphone inputs, the latter accompanying the built-in mic, and there are LEDs for power and activity.
A wide range of connectors are available to the rear and, including two 9-pin serial ports, a parallel port, two PS/2 ports for mouse and keyboard, video and a 10Base-T network connector. Furthermore, there are two Type-II PC card slots, stacked to create a single Type-III slot that can be used for PC card removable storage; a 40Mb Type-III hard disk was provided with our review model. Optional network interfaces for Fast Ethernet and Token Ring are available via PC card support.
Powered by a 25MHz Intel i960 processor, the Neostation 540 can be upgraded to 132Mb of Ram with an optional 6Mb of Flash memory available. The video hardware supports resolutions up to 1,600 x 1,200, making the NeoStation 540 ideal for graphical applications.
Running Neowares netOS software, a variety of software options is available for accessing Windows applications, mainframes, minicomputers, Unix applications, Java and the internet. Upgrading to netOS for the Enterprise brings you Unix connectivity, along with 3270 and VT320 terminal emulation, with a further 32 terminal emulators available for accessing enterprise systems.
pICAsso - thin is in
'pICAsso' is the project code-name for Citrix's thin client-server system software for Microsoft's Windows-based Terminal Server, formerly known as Hydra, for Windows NT 4. Incorporating the Independent Computing Architecture (ICA), pICAsso delivers the benefits of thin client-server computing to a variety of devices, including Macs, legacy PCs, Unix workstations, traditional network computers and wireless terminals and other information devices, as well as standard PCs, NetPCs, and Windows-based terminals.
The remote desktop protocol (RDP) is a similar protocol developed by Microsoft that provides connectivity for standard PCs, NetPCs and Windows-based terminals to its Windows-based Terminal Server add-on for Windows NT 4.
Heterogeneous computing environments are a fact of life in today's enterprise networks, comprising an installed base built on many client devices, operating systems, Lan protocols and network connections. However, for the enterprise interested in making Windows-based applications available to all users, pICAsso is the ideal solution enabling organisations to maintain their existing desktops and still provide the best application fit for both users and the enterprise.
pICAsso provides a range of robust enterprise management tools to support systems, applications and users. With pICAsso, multiple servers can be viewed and administered as a single system image. This allows administrators to add more servers to support demand without reconfiguring user systems. This single server image provides a single point for publishing and administering applications across multiple server.
pICAsso's load balancing feature allows a group of servers running Windows-based Terminal Server to dynamically route users to the server that offers the best application performance, thus delivering enterprise-class capabilities to thousands of users simultaneously.
Thin client-server computing is rapidly becoming the most reliable way to reduce the complexity and total cost of enterprise computing because it offers improved application manageability, access, performance and security.
pICAsso and Microsoft's Windows-based Terminal Server deliver a powerful application deployment solution that meets the challenges faced by today's network managers and the needs of the end user.
One of the things that is immediately striking about most NCs is their styling - any number of traditional PC vendors have tried to create a PC that is visually different to all the rest. But with NCs these off-the-wall designs actually work rather nicely.
The Explora 451, from NCD, resembles more of an external modem than it does a computer. The stylish front panel has an on/off button, power and activity LEDs, while the rear has all the usual connectors you would expect to find - power, serial, parallel, video and a 10/100 auto-sensing RJ45 network connector.
The two PS/2 connectors for the mouse and keyboard are located beneath the unit and the accompanying stand keeps the unit raised high enough off the desk for the cables to sit freely.
There is also a single Type-II PC card slot available for a wireless network card, while 10Base-2 and Token Ring network connectivity are optional extras. The 451 is the middle in the range of three products in the Explora family.
The 400 is an entry-level system optimised for Windows connectivity and provides basic connectivity to Unix and legacy systems, while the Risc-based 700 provides a high-end alternative to powerful Unix workstations. The 451 sits in the middle offering an all round mix of Windows, Unix and legacy connectivity.
The hardware is powered by a 66MHz PowerPC chip and comes with 8Mb of Ram as standard, expandable to 128Mb. A maximum video resolution of 1,280 x 1,024 is available courtesy of an S3 chipset with 2Mb of video Ram.
8-bit audio completes the hardware rundown. Included with the Explora 451 is version five of NCDware. This is NCD's own embedded OS that provides the local ICA client, Java virtual machine, browser, wireless connectivity and light pen support.
Installation of the device is straightforward. Install the NCDware software on to the appropriate server and attach the Explora 451 to the network.
Windows connectivity is serviced by NCDs WinCenter software - essentially a licence of Winframe, from Citrix with a few NCD enhancements.
Unlike the majority of NC vendors that target the typical PC user, Wyse has taken its thin client technology and introduced it to many diverse environments. Probably the best example of which is its 2930 Wireless Winterm product, which is an ideal solution within large warehouses.
Wyse's history of producing terminals and profiled workstations is one of the most distinguished. Some of the basic ideas that can be seen as the root of the thin client concept perhaps have some of their incarnations in the products that Wyse might have built in the past.
Although still a basic Windows-based terminal, the 2600SE is aimed at yet other diverse environments. With its integrated 12.1in LCD display, the Winterm 2600SE is the ideal solution for meeting the emission-free requirements of medical and other such environments. With this in mind, Wyse has built into the casing a mounting point that could as easily be attached to a rolling cart as it could a wall, to provide maximum visibility with a minimum footprint.
The 2600SE is also ideal for those users with limited desk space. Add to this an optional touch screen that works equally well with a finger as it does a stylus and you have the perfect solution for multimedia booths and information points.
The active-matrix LCD display provides a bright clear picture with a wide viewing angle, offering a high degree of visibility. Behind the cable shroud at the rear of the unit is the usual array of connectors - two serial ports, a parallel port, two PS/2 connectors for a mouse and keyboard, a single Type-II PC card slot and a 10Base-T network port.
A block of four other RJ45 connectors is also present, although only two are actually used at present - one for the optional magnetic strip reader, and the other for the optional touch screen.
A small control panel located beneath the screen at the front of the unit, in conjunction with a simple on-screen display, allows you to adjust the screen contrast, horizontal and vertical positions, stability and brightness. There is also an on/off button and small LED, indicating power and sleep mode. As the Winterm 2600SE demonstrates, NCs are not simply about reducing total cost of ownership.
With some foresight and product planning, NCs can be introduced into environments where computers would otherwise simply not be feasible, like the sterile conditions required in medical environments or the roaming capabilities provided by the 2930 within, for example, warehouses.
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