Branching Out

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.

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This article was originally published in the September 1997 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Branching Out.

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