Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Thin clients and clouds

I've previously written about how cloud providers can provide services more efficiently through their economies of scale and through the fact they don't need fancy maintenance contracts.

I remember the first time we had NetApp servers all the big system boys couldn't get their heads around the fact that NetApp didn't do hardware support, they gave you some spare disks, memory and a motherboard. If you could build your own PC you could do first line maintenance on a NetApp filer.

But I digress. The other thing that is happening in computing is that processing, as well as data is moving to the cloud. Virtualisation and astonishingly cheap compute and elastic on demand resourcing has made it a viable option to run your applications from the cloud. Zoho does it. Google Apps does it. Office 365 does it.

At the same time the rise of tablet computing has pushed the migration of services to the cloud - tablets individually do very little real work and instead serve content fetched over the internet - of course not quite true, TextEdit for example lets you create and save files without an internet connection.

A chromebook is fundamentally the same concept - almost all the processing is offloaded onto the cloud and it is effectively a thin client that runs a browser that acts as a gateway to non Google services.

This is of course not a new idea - a French ISP was doing something similar back in 2007, and there have been various attempts over the years to introduce thin client computing.

I've been playing off and on with thin client since the mid nineties. The problems have always been:

  1. The backend infrastructure has required one off big lumps of investment
  2. Software licensing has been a nightmare and overly expensive
  3. Not everything runs in the environment

As we know the application everyone wants on their desktop is office, and Microsoft licensing in thin client environments has always been a nightmare as Microsoft have never done concurrent licensing (ie buy n, share them among m users where m>n, but you never run more than n sessions). Cynics might speculate that the only reason Sun got interested in Star Office, the precursor of Libre Office and Open Office was the need to provide an office application in their SunRay thin client environment.

Cloud changes this. Elastic compute plus virtualisation means that most things can be got to run, and suddenly buying all that infrastructure in a big lump doesn't impact the cashflow. Just the same as buying individual PC's or tablets is more manageable than buying a container load - basically you buy what you need.

And the rise of tablet computing has caused changes. For example you now rent Office 365 at a cost that's considerably less than going out and buying licences. Yes, you end up paying just as much if not more, but you pay for what you use.

So, cloud computing plus reliable networking has finally given us thin client computing. Strictly of course it's browser based computing - things like virtual desktops are stepping stones, ways of getting these specialist applications available in the environment.

However the main points are

  1. Clouds and virtualisation have largely removed the cost barriers to investing in the host infrastructure required for thin client computing
  2. The end devices increasingly need do no more than run a browser - look at the Chromebook as a possible model

The implication is that not only will the pc makers be squeezed by the commodification of the server market, but that desktop sales will decline as desktops are increasingly replaced with low cost delivery devices.

Written with StackEdit.

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