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Save money, use a thin client

With the Internet that connects a local computer with a “cloud” of hardware and software, working straight from the network “servers” is an increasingly attractive alternative to buying a regular PC, reports Ruchi Hajela.

business Updated: Mar 05, 2008 00:44 IST
Ruchi Hajela

College hostels are fun. The mess takes care of your cooking and there is a common room to watch television, a dining room to eat and a clubroom where you play with friends. It is not quite home, but given your student budget, there is great value for money – because you share facilities with others. A thin client is to computing what a hostel room is to a student: an inexpensive way to get the best benefits. With the Internet or other networking technologies that connect a local computer with a “cloud” of hardware and software out there, working straight from the network “servers” is an increasingly attractive alternative to buying a regular personal computer (PC).

Internationally, “cloud computing” is a fashionable expression used to describe the use of a public network – for all practical purposes, the Internet – to do your computing. A thin client and the Internet are a cool combination.

Traditionally, personal computers have been the primary source for computing for individual as well as corporate users. However, maintenance and upgradation costs of both the hardware as well as the software are some reasons why a traditional PC may not be the most cost effective.

Options like server based technology or thin client computing offers comparatively cheaper options.

Unlike a traditional PC where the processing happens inside the Central Processing Unit (CPU), in a thin client scenario, processing takes place on a central server. “The processing capabilities are taken away from the hardware,” says Vinod Kumar Gopinath, Chief Technology Officer, Novatium Solutions. Thin Clients are cheaper as they do not have a hard disk, have limited memory and no processor. The monitor is like a virtual desktop. Leading players selling thin clients include Hewlett Packard, Wyse Technologies and HCL Peripherals amongst others and Sify has been reported to join the bandwagon. Officials from Sify were not available to comment.

Thin clients make sense in organisations where security of data and maintenance of IT are a matter of concern. With thin clients, IT departments can manage different terminals via a common central server where all information is stored. “Thin Clients/servers are relatively complex to install and maintain. Only large organisations like banks and corporations have historically deployed them. The IT department has to have data centre personnel control the server,” explains Raj Shah, Chief Marketing Officer, NComputing.

US-based NComputing offers devices that when connected to a regular PC enables the PC to be shared by others. The XSeries device priced as low as Rs 2,800 includes a Peripheral Component Interconnect (PCI) card and an access terminal that when connected to your original PC allows more terminals to be connected to it. “This is a lot easier to deploy and manage so it is a great solution for schools, colleges, small businesses, factories and other organisations that may not have a lot of IT personnel,” Shah said. Home users can use the same as well.

The server-based technology has largely been limited to organisations where installing software applications across a number of units could be more expensive. Going beyond companies, leading players in thin client category have started exploring the individual user market as well. “Players would need to significantly innovate the business model, application, and product features benefits to enable consideration and adoption of thin clients among home consumers,” Rajesh S Kurup, Group Business Director, eTechnology Group, Indian Market Resarch Bureau, told Hindustan Times.

In all likelihood, Internet service providers and Web-based companies have a major role for home-based thin clients to grow.

Chennai-based Novatium launched its NovaNet PC in Delhi with public sector telecom operator MTNL in September 2007. The scheme offers a NovaNet PC thin client (without a monitor) for Rs 1,999. You also pay an additional Rs 399 per month for server maintenance, which also gets you 30 hours of Internet free. The server in this case is managed by Novatium itself. “Our target consumers are people who have a PC and are looking for a second one or a replacement,” Alok Singh, Chief Executive Officer, Novatium, told HT. “We plan to add about 5 million Indian users in the next three years,” he added. The NetPC has about 650 users in Delhi at present. The company plans to tie up with two more service providers this year and to expand to 10 more cities.

Hyderabad based company IChip Technologies has devised a similar tool, although the company doesn’t quite identify it as a thin client. The Internet enabled multimedia device is called @Box and would be available in two versions priced at $100 and $220 (Rs 4,000 and Rs 8,800) respectively. The latter is expected to have a built-in DVD recorder to justify the higher price. “The device can even support Internet speeds of up to 256 kbps but the effectiveness would come in only with higher speeds. For that reason we plan to tie up with telcos as they have more access to broadband than individual users,” said Kalan Padmanabam, Managing Director, Ichip Technologies.

The computing device runs on the free-to-use Linux operating system and the hardware includes a remote keyboard based on RF (radio frequency), an IPTV set top box and built-in ADSL technology that allows voice calls over internet. Apart from supporting basic computing features like working with Word and spreadsheet files and accessing the Internet, users can also use the device to play games, watch movies and make voice calls.

Experts believe that although thin clients are good for basic computing, for more advanced usages like downloading content and working on specific software, the technology doesn’t offer many options. But then, there is great value-for-money in store for price conscious customers who do not like to waste their rupees.