The days when the simple desktop computer met all your company's computing needs are gone. Now a new breed of computers designed to reduce costs and hassles is emerging. One of the new options to consider: the network computer (NC).
NCs are relatively inexpensive computers that connect to and run off your network. Unlike PCs, NCs have no local storage or software; all applications and data are stored on the network server, and are available for users to access when needed. (Don't confuse NCs with NetPCs, which are low-cost, stripped-down PCs with limited storage that companies like Hewlett Packard and Compaq are manufacturing to compete with the NC.
While the merits of the NC have been touted primarily for large corporations--which have much to gain from equipping their masses with low-cost, centrally managed terminals--they're not the only ones benefiting from NC technology. "Small businesses have a lot to gain from NCs," says John MacGilvary, chief analyst with Datapro Information Services Group, an information technology research and analysis firm in Delran, New Jersey. "Basically, the same benefits that apply to large businesses also apply to small ones, but on a smaller scale."
Just The Basics
To promote NCs, Apple, IBM, Oracle and Sun Microsystems developed the NC Reference Profile, a set of standards and guidelines that form the basis of the NC. On the hardware side, NC support requirements include audio output, at least 640 x 480 VGA resolution, and Internet Protocol (IP) network connections. As for software, an NC must support Java, communicate over the network via IP, run a Web browser, and recognize certain multi-media and other basic file formats. (At press time, a second version of the software reference profile was expected to be released soon.)
What's most noticeable about NCs is their diminutive size--they're roughly the shape of a paperback book. Most NCs come with standard keyboards and mice; monitors are usually purchased separately. Don't expect to be impressed with their fancy hardware: Many boast only 1MB to 4MB RAM and, as a general rule, possess relatively low-speed processors. So what's to love about this shell of a computer? NCs typically range in price from $800 to $1,200, and some NCs can be found for even less.
Unlike PCs, NCs rely entirely on a network server. Applications and data are stored on the server rather than on users' hard drives, and programs are designed to be compiled only as needed. Rather than taking up hard drive space with a rarely used software application, employees simply download the appropriate software to their machines when needed. Because Java support is one of the key components of the NC, users would ideally download Java applets (small task-based applications like a word processing program) from a Web site or corporate intranet to their NCs. However, because few Java programs are available, many of today's NCs run Windows applications on a Windows NT server loaded with software such as Citrix's WinFrame or Insignia Solutions' NTrigue, which are both widely used for terminal access to Windows applications.
IBM has established itself as a major player in the NC arena. Its primary offering is the IBM Network Station ($695, monitor not included). Base models come with PowerPC processors; 8MB RAM (expandable to 64MB), which simply holds files and data currently in use; 1MB of video memory, a keyboard and a mouse.
Wyse Technology, a longtime maker of Windows terminals (essentially scaled-down PCs without hard-drives), offers several solutions through its Winterm 2000 line, although they're not exactly NCs by the consortium's definition. Unlike other vendors, the Winterm line provides built-in support for the Citrix Independent Computing Architecture (ICA) protocol, which is designed to optimize Windows applications. Wyse's Winterm 2300SE ($675, monitor not included) comes stocked with a 486 processor, 1.5MB flash RAM, 1MB of video memory, a mouse and a keyboard. While the Winterm 2000 series is a solution for running Windows applications, Wyse also offers the Winterm 4000 series of NCs that supports Java applications as well as Windows. The Winterm 4300, for example, (starting at $699, moniter not included) features a 220 MHz processor, 8MB or 16MB RAM, graphics and audio support, a mouse and a keyboard.
The Great Debate
NCs aren't designed for users with heavy demands for localized software programs, such as desktop publishing. Rather, NCs are best suited to workers who use information rather than produce it, and who spend most of their time accessing data and communicating electronically with others. Many workers fit the NC typical user profile--those who spend most of their computing time accessing databases, doing light word processing, sending e-mail and browsing the Internet.
NCs make good sense for small businesses for several reasons. For one, they allow small companies to manage their technology use on demand. In a small business where costs are critical, computer equipment is often underutilized: Most workers spend only five or six hours a day on their computers; while the rest of the time their PCs remain idle. NC users, on the other hand, get the performance they require and have access to applications stored on the server, without the hefty hardware investment. Plus, there's less need to replace hardware every few years to keep up with the computing power that's required to run today's mammoth software applications.
Storing all programs and data on the server also drastically reduces the time and effort required to manage computer systems. Software distribution can be difficult and time-consuming when an updated program needs to be installed on all 10 of your machines. But with NCs, applications are installed only once on the server, greatly reducing the cost of software installation and maintenance. Similarly, data backup issues are lessened significantly. Users don't have to worry about backing up and managing their data because it's all done by a network administrator who backs up the server and monitors the creation and flow of data.
NC proponents also believe cost of ownership is a big advantage. While that remains to be seen, one thing is for sure: With studies showing that the time employees spend playing games stored locally on their machines adds up to millions of wasted hours each year, having central control of the software your employees can use has its advantages.
On the downside, a major stumbling block for the NC is the lack of software available. Java promises to bring a host of new and improved platform-neutral applications that can be delivered very efficiently across the NC system, but it has yet to deliver. The software situation is improving, however. Corel recently introduced a beta version (only available as a download from the Web) of the first Java suite, Office for Java, that translates standard applications such as word processors and spreadsheets into Java programs. Many software developers expect to release Java versions of their applications by the time you read this. Plus, new programs are being introduced to aid system administrators in managing NC systems. IBM's Network Station Manager, for instance, enables network administrators to tailor the desktop and applications to fit the needs of each user in the system--even from a remote location.
As you'd probably guess, storing all data and applications centrally puts high demands on your server. As a result, servers must often be upgraded to hold more applications and run them more efficiently--and this can get very costly. Furthermore, some view NCs as a throwback to the days of "dumb" terminals, when network administrators had all the control. While these things may be true to some extent, NCs also boast new features, such as the ability to run Java applications, which are actually quite futuristic. And the ability to easily manage the network from a central point saves both time and money.
Even so, the best advice may be to sit back and wait awhile. As developers of NC technology work out the kinks and wait for more Java applications to come through, start thinking ahead about reduced hardware and management costs--and warning your systems manager of possible changes ahead.