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Thin Clients for Thick Applications

Are Windows terminals and network computers evolving in your direction?

Thin-client technology has created a debate in the NT and general-computing communities that forces us to look back at the computing architectures of yesterday and look forward to the computing architectures of tomorrow. This constant head-swiveling can be a pain in the neck, which is how many people regard thin-client technology. But whether you think thin-client technology is a throwback to server-centric, dumb-terminal computing or the harbinger of a new era in Windows-everywhere computing, one thing is clear: Thin-client technology is here to stay.

In my ongoing investigation of thin-client technology, I have explored a wide range of products and technologies. In January, I looked at WinFrame 1.7, the granddaddy of multiuser NT technology, and at Compaq Deskpro 4000, Compaq's entry in the Network PC market. In February, I explored NTerprise 1.3, a multiuser NT product that competes with WinFrame. In March, I looked at the product that has brought thin-client technology to the forefront of the market­Microsoft Windows-based Terminal Server, Beta 1. Also in March, I looked at the pICAsso, Beta 1 add-on for Terminal Server and a unique hardware-software solution, Maxspeed's MaxStations.

In this issue, I wrap up my thin-client investigation (but not the Lab's ongoing coverage of thin-client products) with a look at Windows terminals and network computers (NCs) that interoperate with multiuser NT products such as WinFrame, NTerprise, and Terminal Server. These terminals and NCs are an important part of the thin-client equation because they are low-cost, easy-to-administer systems that deliver powerful Windows-based applications to desktop users.

Terminals and NCs that can play in the thin-client league come in all shapes and sizes and are produced by Microsoft-friendly and Microsoft-unfriendly manufacturers. These manufacturers have a vested interest in NT-based thin-client technology because they know they must deliver products that let users access Windows-based applications. The need to deliver these products results in some pretty strange combinations. For example, if you have an IBM AS/400 and an IBM NC, you must have an NT system to initialize your NC so that it can access the AS/400. (IBM's long-term solution to this situation is to implement NT inside the AS/400, but that's another story, for another issue.)

The list of terminal and NC manufacturers is an interesting one. On this list you'll find manufacturers rooted in the X terminal market (e.g., Network Computing Devices­NCD, Tektronix, Neoware Systems­formerly HDS­Affinity Software, and Boundless Technologies), manufacturers rooted in the dumb-terminal market (e.g., Wyse Technology), and big-name computer companies that want a piece of the action (e.g., IBM and Oracle). You've undoubtedly noticed that none of the foregoing companies is the ideal attendee of a Microsoft love-fest, but that's what makes the thin-client market interesting.

Who Do You Love?
To appreciate your choices in the Windows-terminal and NC market, you have to look at thin-client technology from both the Microsoft and non-Microsoft perspective. From the Microsoft perspective, you would deploy Microsoft-sanctioned Windows terminals on your desktop. These terminals run the Windows CE operating system (OS) and use the Tshare protocol to communicate with Terminal Server. This perspective is a fairly narrow one that the rest of the market does not necessarily share. For example, if you are currently making NCs or X terminal units, wouldn't you rather simply add support for a new protocol (e.g., Tshare or the Citrix alternative, Independent Computing Architecture­ICA) in your existing unit instead of reengineering your product to use an entirely new OS and infrastructure? I know I would. (For more information about ICA and Tshare, see the sidebar "A Matter of Protocol," page 94.)

Most NC and X terminal manufacturers share my non-Microsoft point of view. They see more sense in keeping their own NC OSs and adding support for Tshare or ICA to their existing products. This approach gives manufacturers the best of all worlds: From one NC you can access Windows-based applications via Tshare or ICA, legacy hosts via Telnet or a Telnet variation (e.g., TN5250 or TN3270), or X11 applications. In many cases, you can run Java applications or a browser inside the NC. Does this approach make these products unsuitable for use with Terminal Server? Not at all­it just keeps the products off the official Microsoft-approved list.

The other major thin-client manufacturing segment produces free-standing Windows-based terminals. When you turn on one of these terminals, it is ready to connect to an NT multiuser server via a LAN or modem connection. Wyse pioneered this market when it introduced its first ICA-based terminal several years ago. Since that time, other manufacturers have joined in producing Windows-based terminals. The question for Windows-based terminal manufacturers is to what extent they should embrace Microsoft's recommendation for Windows terminals. Should they throw away their investment in their existing technology (there are plenty of ICA-based Windows terminals in the field) and go to the Windows CE/Tshare architecture exclusively? Or should they hedge their bets and support both Tshare and ICA using whatever OS they want? The issue­and the future­for these manufacturers is not as clear as it is for the NC and X terminal manufacturers.

Create Your Future
As you can see, the Windows terminal and NC market is currently going through a lot of changes. There are many forks in the road ahead, and there is little agreement about which fork will best serve the market. Until the future becomes clear, expect to see different kinds of offerings from the Windows terminal and NC manufacturers. For example, don't be surprised if Wyse offers both traditional ICA and Microsoft-approved Tshare terminal models. Similarly, you might see some of the NC manufacturers come out with a line of Microsoft-approved terminals as they move their multipurpose NCs forward.

Having these choices is a good thing, because it gives you the opportunity to vote with your purchasing dollars. If we all go out and buy NCs and ICA-based Windows terminals, that will end the life of the Microsoft-approved Windows terminals. Alternatively, if we insist on Microsoft-approved terminals, that will send an equally strong message to the Windows terminal and NC manufacturers. Clearly, this situation is an excellent opportunity to evaluate our needs and communicate them to manufacturers. In other words, for once we actually have some say in how the future takes shape.

Here and Now
To help you understand where the market is today and where it is headed tomorrow, the Windows NT Magazine Lab evaluated three representative thin-client units. The first, Viewpoint TC Model 200 from Boundless Technologies, is an instant-on Windows terminal. The second product, Winterm 2310SE from Wyse Technology, is an instant-on Windows terminal that Wyse suggests for use with Terminal Server. The third product, @workStation from Neoware Systems, is a multipurpose NC that you can use for Java applications, X terminal applications, and Windows terminal applications.

All three units support the ICA protocol, although each claims it will have support for Tshare by the time Microsoft releases Terminal Server. I tested all three units using both Citrix WinFrame 1.7 and Terminal Server with the Citrix pICAsso add-on for ICA support.

Viewpoint TC Model 200
Boundless Technologies' Viewpoint TC Model 200 is a medium-pizza-box-sized unit that supports the ICA protocol and includes several features that position it in a variety of vertical application markets (e.g., retail, restaurant, financial sales). Installing the Viewpoint TC is simple­you connect the power cord and attach a keyboard, mouse, and VGA or SVGA monitor. Then you connect the Viewpoint TC to your multiuser NT server via modem, direct serial cable, or Ethernet 10Base-T connection. I tested the Viewpoint TC using the Ethernet connection. The unit I evaluated did not come with a monitor, so the Lab supplied one.

When you press the power button on the front of the unit, the Viewpoint TC brings up a character-based menu. You can launch a connection to a server from this menu, or you can use the menu options to configure the unit. One option you can choose is to have the Viewpoint TC automatically launch a connection to a multiuser NT server. When you choose this option, you can prevent end users from seeing the menu screen. I was surprised by the number of options on this unit, and I needed a few minutes to get oriented and separate the relevant options from the irrelevant ones for my test environment. For example, the Viewpoint TC supports a touch-screen display unit. Although I think this feature can be a bonus for any point-of-sale environment, I didn't have a touch-screen display, so I had to ignore that set of options.

The Viewpoint TC supports Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP), which simplified integrating the Viewpoint TC into my NT network. After I figured out how to navigate through the menu options, all I needed to do was configure the Viewpoint TC to use the Ethernet port to get an address via DHCP, and enter the address for my multiuser NT servers. You can configure the Viewpoint TC to use more than one server (although not concurrently). This option was handy, because I was testing using two different systems (a WinFrame 1.7 server and a Terminal Server with pICAsso).

What's great about instant-on Windows-based terminals is that they are so easy to implement. After setting my network and server values, I launched a connection from the main menu, the Viewpoint TC connected to my multiuser NT server, and the Windows logon screen displayed on the monitor.

The Viewpoint TC supports 16 or 256 colors and display resolutions of 640 * 480, 800 * 600, and 1024 * 768. In addition to the connectors for the keyboard, mouse, monitor, and network link, the Viewpoint TC includes two 9-pin serial connectors and a parallel port. You can use the serial ports for modems, direct server connections, or a printer. Finally, the Viewpoint TC includes a PCI slot and an ISA slot to accommodate other types of interfaces.

Viewpoint TC Model 200
Contact: Boundless Technologies * 516-342-7400 or 800-231-5445
Price: $799 (logic unit, keyboard, and mouse)

Winterm 2310SE
The Winterm 2310SE is a member of the Winterm family of ICA-based Windows terminals from Wyse Technology. The Lab has used and evaluated several Winterm models in the past, and the 2310SE demonstrates the same ease of use and reliability as the previous models. The Winterm line keeps getting better.

The Winterm 2310SE is a freestanding unit that is slightly taller than your average external PC speaker. I'd estimate the size as somewhere between a dictionary and a toaster. The unit comes with a standard keyboard and mouse, although you can use your own keyboard and mouse if you prefer. The Winterm 2310SE does not include a monitor, so I evaluated the test unit using one of the Lab monitors. The Winterm 2310SE supports VGA and SVGA monitors operating at 16 or 256 colors with display resolutions of 640 * 480, 800 * 600, and 1024 * 768.

In addition to the display, keyboard, and monitor ports, the Winterm 2310SE supports two 9-pin serial ports, one parallel port, and an Ethernet 10Base-T connection. Wyse provides a PCMCIA Type II slot to accommodate additional connectivity or custom features. The Winterm 2310SE can connect to a multiuser NT system via a direct cable, modem, or the Ethernet port. I used the Ethernet connection option during my tests.

Installing the Winterm 2310SE is not rocket science. You plug in the power-supply feed, keyboard, mouse, monitor, and (in my case) Ethernet connection, and you're ready to go. When you power on the Winterm 2310SE, you see a GUI-like configuration utility (it's not a true GUI, but it's not just a character-mode interface, either). The configuration utility is similar to the configuration Wyse has used on earlier Winterm models. If you have used a Winterm unit before, you won't have problems using this one. However, I've always found the Winterm configuration utility to be a little confusing. For example, on the main screen you have Options, Setup, and Network. It's not always clear which choice is the one you want. If you want to change your display resolution, do you use Options or Setup? (The answer is Options.) The good news is that you don't have to hunt too much to find what you want­most configuration items are only one level deep.

The Winterm 2310SE supports DHCP, which many networks require. Configuring DHCP support in the Winterm 2310SE is easy. You can also configure the Winterm 2310SE to use DNS, which lets you access multiuser NT servers over traditional TCP/IP networks, such as the Internet.

After configuring the Winterm 2310SE to use DHCP and the Ethernet port, I had to configure the IP address of my multiuser NT servers. The Winterm 2310SE supports entries for multiple servers, but you cannot have concurrent connections to multiple servers. You can configure the Winterm 2310SE unit to automatically launch a connection on startup, or you can launch your server connection from a menu. I had no problems getting the Winterm 2310SE to connect to either of my multiuser NT servers. For me, the beauty of Windows terminals is that you can plug them in, set a couple of configuration variables, and you're up and running. If only NT Workstation (or Windows 95, for that matter) were so simple to set up.

Winterm 2310SE
Contact: Wyse Technology * 800-438-9973
Price: $899 (logic unit, keyboard, and mouse)

Neoware Systems has roots in the production of X terminals and multipurpose NCs. Because my professional background includes plenty of experience with UNIX systems and X terminal units, it doesn't take me long to recognize an X terminal when I see one, no matter how many times a manufacturer works the term thin client into its product description. As far as I'm concerned, the Neoware @workStation is an X terminal unit extended into the category of multipurpose NC.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that an NC approach is bad. In fact, in many environments NCs are an excellent solution because they can do so many things. For example, the @workStation includes an integrated browser (Netscape's) and can run Java applications locally; it can emulate a variety of terminal types using Telnet; it can act like an X terminal to access X11-based applications; and of course, it can function as a Windows-based terminal. But all this power comes at a price, and that price is a high level of complexity. The @workStation contains an internal hard disk to store and run its OS, netOS. However, you must configure and download the @workStation OS from an NT or UNIX server. You can use Common Internet File System­CIFS, NFS, FTP, or Trivial File Transfer Protocol­TFTP--to download the OS, so you can integrate the @workStation into almost any environment.

The @workStation's complexity spills over into the installation and configuration processes. With a Windows terminal, you plug in a keyboard, mouse, LAN connection, and monitor. With the @workStation, you plug in a keyboard, mouse, LAN connection, and high-resolution (1024 * 768 or greater) monitor. In some cases, you must reconfigure the @workStation (using DIP switches) to use a specific brand of high-resolution monitor­you can't just grab a standard VGA or SVGA monitor and go for it. After you have the monitor set, you must also download the OS to gain access to all the @workStation features.

The @workStation comes with a full complement of ports and connections, just as you'd expect to find on any X terminal or NC. The @workStation has connectors for a keyboard, mouse, and monitor. It has a 9-pin serial port, a 25-pin serial port, and a parallel port. For network connectivity, the @workStation includes BNC, 10Base-T, and AUI Ethernet connectors. It also has a port labeled Sun keyboard, but on the Lab's test unit that port was covered, and I couldn't use it.

Given the power and complexity of the @workStation, would you really want to use it as a Windows terminal? It depends. On one hand, if you have a heterogeneous environment that includes UNIX systems and legacy hosts (e.g., Digital VMS, IBM AS/400, IBM mainframe), then the @workStation is clearly a winner. From one desktop unit you can access all your applications, no matter where they reside, and you can cruise the Internet using the local browser. Furthermore, chances are good that if you have a heterogeneous environment, you already have the infrastructure to download and configure NC OSs. On the other hand, if you are constructing a new network or you have an existing Microsoft-centric network, the @workStation is going to feel like a square peg jammed into a round hole. The dilemma most NCs face is that they simply have too many infrastructure requirements and too much power for a typical Microsoft-centric environment. I hope that as NC technology progresses, the square pegs will become smoother and rounder.

--John Enck

Contact: Neoware Systems * 800-636-9273
Price: Contact local reseller
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