A Thin-Client Solution for X Terminals and More

Continuing the Lab's investigation of desktop choices with a look at Exodus Technology's NTERPRISE 1.3

Last month I began an exploration of the technology and products that are vying to reduce the total cost of ownership (TCO) of desktop systems (see "Desktop Technology Today," January 1998). This area of the market is growing at an astonishing pace. A year ago, you could find only a handful of products addressing desktop TCO issues; today, you can find dozens of technologies and options.

The best way to navigate through the twists and turns of this burgeoning market is to divide it into categories. Last month I suggested that the market could be carved into three basic technology segments:

  • Fat-client technology: Products in this segment add new manageability features to the conventional client/server architecture. A good example is Microsoft's Zero Administration for Windows (ZAW) initiative.
  • Lean-client technology: Products in this segment reduce components on the desktop and shift management responsibilities to a server. The most visible example of this category is the NetPC computer—a reduced-footprint, minimal-component but fully functional desktop system.
  • Thin-client technology: Products in this segment use Windows terminals, network computers, or legacy systems (i.e., 286 and 386 PCs) running thin-client software to leverage server-side resources for the desktop. This technology is driven by multiuser versions of Windows NT.

In January, I looked at a mainstream lean client—Compaq's DeskPro 4000N—and the latest version of a veteran multiuser-NT thin-client product—WinFrame 1.7 from Citrix. This month I look at a thin-client product that takes an alternative approach to implementing multiuser NT: NTERPRISE 1.3.

NTERPRISE 1.3, by Exodus Technologies, is a multiuser implementation of NT Workstation 3.51 and NT Server 3.51 that lets X terminals, Java-enabled clients, and desktop PCs access NT applications. NTERPRISE is similar in concept to Citrix's WinFrame, but NTERPRISE is not based on WinFrame technology. Rather, NTERPRISE is based on multiuser technology that Exodus codeveloped with Prologue Software. Prologue Software markets a version of this technology under the name WiNTimes.

The original market for Exodus NTERPRISE was UNIX environments in which X11 access is prevalent. UNIX workstations, X terminals, and devices running X11 emulation (e.g., network computers, Macs, or PCs) can log on to an NTERPRISE server and run NT-based applications. Using X11 to run NT applications from an NTERPRISE server presents a familiar look and feel to UNIX users.

Since the initial release of NTERPRISE, Exodus has widened its reach: NTERPRISE now includes a Java client that lets any Java-enabled system access an Exodus server. You can fire up any Web browser with Java support, point it at the Exodus server, and access the server's NT applications. NTERPRISE 1.3 includes a PC program that lets 16-bit and 32-bit Windows environments access an NTERPRISE server without requiring a browser or any X terminal emulation software.

In addition to being an X11-oriented solution, NTERPRISE supports the exportation of individual NT applications. Most other multiuser-NT products support only exportation of the desktop. For example, WinFrame provides the client system with one window that contains a desktop view of all activity the client system is conducting on the server. This window displays items such as Program Manager groups, foreground applications, and minimized applications.

NTERPRISE supports exportation of the desktop, so the product looks and acts like the other multiuser-NT solutions on the market. Screen 1 shows a client accessing NTERPRISE through one desktop view—Program Manager and Internet Explorer (IE) both appear in the same window. But NTERPRISE also lets you export desktop components as individual windows on the client system. Thus, you can run Program Manager in one window on your desktop and start an application in a new window. Screen 2 shows the second approach: Program Manager and IE appear in separate windows. This multiwindow approach gives a more natural look and feel to the desktop.

Before you install NTERPRISE, you must install NT Workstation (or Server) 3.51 and Service Pack (SP) 5. This requirement is the biggest limitation of the current set of multiuser products on the market. Finding a system with components that NT 3.51 supports can be an effort—much of today's hardware doesn't have 3.51 drivers.

Exodus ships NTERPRISE on a CD-ROM that contains versions for the Alpha and Intel platforms. However, the CD-ROM does not contain SP5, so make sure you have an SP5 CD-ROM on hand or plan for a little download time (SP5 is approximately 13MB). For my tests, I installed NT Server 3.51 on a generic 133MHz Pentium system with 64MB of memory, two internal 2GB hard disks, and an NE2000-compatible Ethernet network adapter. I used this particular system because the hardware components are all NT 3.51-friendly.

After I installed NT Server 3.51 and applied SP5, I had to configure the TCP/IP network settings for the system. (NTERPRISE is based on X11 and Java; therefore, it requires TCP/IP as its network transport.) Once my system was up and running on the network, I was ready to install NTERPRISE. Installation is simple: Insert the CD-ROM and run the setup program from either the i386 or Alpha directory. The installation process keeps track of the changes NTERPRISE makes to the NT 3.51 environment, and the software provides an uninstall program so that you can remove NTERPRISE.

If you intend to use Java clients to access the NTERPRISE server, you must install Web-serving software. You can use Internet Information Server (IIS) or another commercial product, or you can use the European Microsoft Windows NT Academic Center (EMWAC) freeware HTTP server on the NTERPRISE CD-ROM. I opted to install the HTTP software and the related Java client applets. All things considered, the installation process—including the installation of the HTTP software and Java client applets—was straightforward, free of cumbersome licensing requirements, and painless.

I ran both the NTERPRISE 1.21 and 1.3 releases in the Windows NT Magazine Lab. From my perspective, the primary difference between these two releases is that NTERPRISE 1.3 includes the Windows client. (Exodus claims that version 1.3 offers better scalability—the company says the version has supported up to 200 users on a high-end Alpha-based system.) For client-side testing, I used a Tektronix X terminal, a Sun SPARCstation 5 (provided by Amdahl), and the Lab's Compaq 5400 laptop system running NT Server 4.0, WRQ Reflection X (for X terminal access), IE 4.0 (for Java access), and Netscape Navigator 3.0 (for Java access).

Contact: Exodus Technologies 425-803-5780, Web: http://www.exodustech.com
Price: $1545
System Requirements: Windows NT 3.51 Service Pack 5 100MB free disk space For Intel systems: 90MHz Pentium processor 24MB of RAM for basic operating system, 6MB of RAM per additional user For Alpha systems: AXP EV4, EV5, or EV5.6 system 48MB of RAM for basic operating system, 8MB of RAM per additional user

X11 Access
I exercised the X terminal access capabilities of NTERPRISE first. Exodus designed NTERPRISE to accommodate access from X terminals, so my expectations were fairly high. I decided to test three types of X11 access: access from the laptop through an X terminal emulator, access from a real UNIX workstation, and access from a real X terminal device.

To test access from the laptop, I grabbed a copy of WRQ's ReflectionSuite for X. This product is a broad solution for access to Digital, HP, IBM, and UNIX systems. It includes both conventional character-based terminal emulators and X11 graphics emulators for those environments. Because I was focused on X11 access, I installed only the X components on the laptop.

I brought up the X terminal emulation component and selected rsh (remote shell) as the launch method for starting an NTERPRISE session. After a few failed attempts, I finally conquered the syntax of all the parameters, and NTERPRISE presented me with a logon screen, as Screen 3 shows. I entered my user name, password, and domain of residence and clicked OK. The NTERPRISE system then opened up a window on the laptop that contained the NTERPRISE desktop.

The logon screen also contains a MultiWindow check box. This option controls whether the entire desktop will be in one window (non-multiwindow) or whether each application will have a separate window (multiwindow). Multiwindow operation is not limited to PC clients. I can also export the entire NTERPRISE desktop or individual applications to my X terminal and UNIX workstation.

When I was satisfied with the PC X terminal interface, I moved to the SPARCsystem 5 UNIX workstation and attempted to launch a session using Sun's X11 software. This launch proved to be a little tricky because of authentication problems relating to rsh, but ultimately I was successful—and quite pleased to be sitting at a Sun system accessing NT applications.

My final stop was at the Tektronix X terminal unit. In this case, I was not able to start a session at all. The X terminal in the Lab supports only XDM as a launch methodology, and the NTERPRISE system didn't respond to the startup request. I did some quick checking in the sparse NTERPRISE documentation and learned that, although NTERPRISE supports XDM, it doesn't enable XDM out of the box. I made a quick visit to the NTERPRISE administration program, in Screen 4, which let me enable XDM. Note that XDM is one of two important utilities that are not automatically enabled when you install NTERPRISE. The second utility is Trivial File Transfer Protocol (TFTP), which lets you initialize X terminals from the NTERPRISE server. To use TFTP, you must copy your X terminal initialization files to the NTERPRISE system and enable the TFTP service through the Control Panel's Services applet.

Once I enabled XDM, I launched an NTERPRISE session from the Tektronix X terminal without a hitch. When I used the Tektronix and Sun devices, I noticed that the look and feel of multiwindow operation depends on the X Windows manager that is running on the X terminal device. For example, the default X Windows manager on the Tektronix device is rather limited, so I was more comfortable running my NTERPRISE sessions on the Tektronix device in one desktop window. I've concluded that the choice to run multiwindow or one desktop window is a subjective one.

Java Access
After I was satisfied with the X terminal interface, I started IE 4.0 and directed it to the NTERPRISE system. When the browser connected to the NTERPRISE HTTP server, I received a demonstration screen with three keys to launch connections to the NTERPRISE server, as Screen 5 shows.

The three keys—Basic, App Launcher, and Single App—perform slightly different tasks. Clicking Basic starts a Java applet in a separate window, shown in Screen 6, that lets you log on to the NTERPRISE server. After you log on, the NTERPRISE HTTP server starts another Java applet window that holds the server desktop view, as Screen 7, page 72, shows.

Clicking App Launcher starts a different Java applet window that contains icons to start applications on the NTERPRISE server. When you click one of these icons, the corresponding application starts up in the Java applet window that contains the server desktop view. If you click Single App, you automatically log on to the server and start an application in the Java applet window for the server desktop view. Confusing? I certainly think so.

I think the version 1.3 interface is a step backward from the interface in version 1.21. In version 1.21, you immediately receive a logon screen when you connect to the server. In version 1.3, you must navigate through the screen choices before you can access any applications.

Another difference between the two versions is that, in version 1.21, you can choose to run the applets inside your browser or as separate Java windows when you log on to the server. In version 1.3 this choice is gone: If you want to run your applets inside the browser, you must change the HTML files for the client interface. All things considered, I like the version 1.21 interface much better because it is intuitive and can be immediately deployed in an enterprise environment. The version 1.3 interface requires customization.

Interface issues aside, the application responsiveness of the Java client environment was better than I had anticipated. Most simple operations—double-clicking icons, clicking keys, or invoking drop-down menus—worked smoothly and without delay. More complex drag-and-drop operations did not work as easily. Although you can drag objects, a definite lag time occurs between when you move the cursor and when the dragged object follows. Even so, I found the NTERPRISE Java client to be acceptable for most business applications.

During my testing of the Java client, I moved back and forth between IE 4.0 and Navigator 3.02. The Java client worked in both environments, although the IE 4.0 Java Machine (JM) provided better performance than the Navigator JM did.

PC Access
If you wanted to access an NTERPRISE server from a PC before the release of NTERPRISE 1.3, you had to use either a Java-enabled browser or X terminal emulation software. NTERPRISE 1.3 includes a client-side program that lets you access an NTERPRISE server from a 16-bit or 32-bit Windows environment—no browser or X terminal emulation software is required. No doubt Exodus learned this lesson from WinFrame, which also includes client-side access software.

The NTERPRISE client module—which installs under a program group called Coral (I don't know why)—looks and feels like an X terminal connection to an NTERPRISE server in multiwindow mode. When you start the client, it prompts you for logon information. After you successfully log on to the NTERPRISE server, the server-side Program Manager appears in a window. Any applications you run from the Program Manager window start in new windows on your desktop. As in the case of X terminal access, the multiwindow mode brings a native, intuitive feel to the applications exported from the NTERPRISE server.

The NTERPRISE client software provides performance similar to that of the X terminal. More important, the client software provides better performance than the Java interface does. Clearly, the version 1.3 client-side program is a good, low-cost, high-performance solution for accessing NTERPRISE server from conventional PC desktops. My only word of caution is that version 1.3 contains the first release of the client-side program—I suspect there are a few bugs that must be shaken out.

I found NTERPRISE easy to install. It didn't demand that I jump through bizarre licensing hoops, and most important, it worked immediately after installation—I did not have to perform any additional configuration steps to make it usable. The ease of installation is impressive when you consider that NTERPRISE is a complex multiuser NT implementation. The documentation could certainly be better, but that shortcoming shouldn't keep you from using the product.

I regard NTERPRISE as an excellent solution for any heterogeneous environment dominated by X11 desktops. With support for Java and the new 16-bit and 32-bit client software, NTERPRISE extends its reach beyond X11 devices to embrace any Java-enabled system or desktop PC. But the roots of the product are wrapped around X11 technology, and this heritage shows through in the configuration, administration, and management of NTERPRISE. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that's bad. But if you haven't worked with X11 before, you might find NTERPRISE a little awkward.

Although I can't imagine deploying NTERPRISE in an environment where X11 isn't installed, NTERPRISE seems to be moving in that direction. With support for Java and native PC access, NTERPRISE is clearly reaching out to new devices—and, I assume, new markets. Based on what I see in version 1.3, NTERPRISE has an excellent chance at being successful in non-X11 markets. But before it gets to those markets, I strongly suggest that Exodus revisit its Java interface and make sure the PC client software is 100 percent stable.

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