Revenge of the Thin Client?
Insurance Experts' Forum, October 25, 2010
Back in the day, when “monster movies” were the hot thing among my junior high school crowd, everyone knew that no monster worth his fangs or bolts could ever be dispatched forever in a single film. In fact, it was a given that the more popular the fiend, the longer it would take before he finally “met his end” (or the screenwriters ran out of ideas for ways to bring him back to life).
As a result, every good monster film was inevitably followed by the revenge, return, rerun or revivification of the title creature. It was great fun, and, to their credit, filmmakers of that era knew a moneymaker when they saw one.
This particular paradigm jumped to mind recently when I saw a USA Today posting about a real estate firm that has begun converting its 40,000 traditional desktop PCs into “virtual desktops.” In exchange for giving up their company-issued Windows XP desktops and laptops, “each employee gets access to a virtual copy of a new, more powerful Windows 7 desktop residing in [the company’s] private data center.”
Virtualization technology enables the company to push out a Windows 7 desktop to any PC the employee happens to have handy. “It could be an old office XP machine, a personally owned Netbook or a computer in an Internet café,” the posting notes. “The employee gets full access to company e-mail, databases and business applications.”
I think we can call this trend—if, indeed it becomes a trend—“The Revenge of the Thin Client.” We’ve certainly seen this idea before, with some vendors pushing “thin” client stations that contain few if any of their own applications, but can connect to a server somewhere that contains all the functionality the user needs. The idea has never really caught on to a great extent, but it may be that in the current economic environment, the desperate need to save money on things like hardware purchases will put new life into the old cadaver.
The hardware savings are an obvious benefit—not having to buy fully functional PCs or laptops for one’s employees will certainly save money. Then again, the prices of such devices have fallen to the extent that savings may not be as significant as hoped. Further, it seems likely that not everyone will be willing to use his or her own personal devices to connect to the virtual network—at least not without some form of compensation from the company.
The there’s the problem of security. This paradigm enables your users to access your network from “virtually” any virus-infected laptop or zombie desktop unit—not an appetizing idea for insurers, brokers and others whose very existence depends on keeping their networks safe from intrusion. This is the electronic version of a cold sufferer failing to wash his or her hands before touching a public doorknob and leaving the offending virus for others to catch. No one wants it to happen, but we all know that it does.
Finally, I think the “thin-client” enthusiasts underestimate users’ love for their PCs and laptops, as well as their personal need for control. For most of us, this blogger included, our computers also function as entertainment—in essence, as toys. If Big Brother running the network is in charge, however, users can say goodbye to the fun, probably in the name of increased security.
Thin clients could see some increase in popularity, but the enterprises that provide them will need to supply the “dumb terminals” to employees, instead of hoping that each worker will volunteer the use of his or her own hardware. It should be interesting to see how this idea plays out over the next few years.
Ara C. Trembly (www.aratremblytechnology.com) is the founder of Ara Trembly, The Tech Consultant, and a longtime observer of technology in insurance and financial services.
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