Saturday, December 06, 2008

Thin Client Doesn’t Mean Anorexic Counseling

Another Saturday morning rolls around, and since this was my first full week back at work, I have nothing but work on my mind. That can be a bad thing. Especially if you expect me to blog about World of Warcraft or anything non-IT related today. Sorry. Not going to happen.


Can someone explain to me when and why we've started moving back to the mainframe mentality? It seems like the only thing I've heard this week is "thin client" this and "thick client" that. But I guess it's the natural progression.

I remember back in '89 (I'm starting to sound like Homer's father Abe!) everyone was saying "eventually the network will BE the computer". I thought that was a cool idea, but there was no way that would happen. Well, we're getting there. Ever use Google Docs? What about Gmail? OK, those can be extreme examples, but what about AOL (the old AOL with the dial-up connection, not the website). Everything you needed to get to was available at 14.4kbps. Now things are much faster, and we can do so much more. Do you really need a powerful desktop computer? Not if you have a reliable network connection.


That's where the idea of the netbook computer came from. What we would have classified as a wimpy little laptop with no future, with some storage space, but not a lot, connected to a big network "pipe" so you can do everything you need to do somewhere else. You don't really need anything except a browser anymore. I won't make a list because there's one here. I hope it's up to date (not that it's possible to be up to date because things change so fast).


We're actually getting to the point of the network being the computer. Or at least that's what it looks like. It's more like the old mainframe. All the processing (or at least the heavy lifting) is done at the far end, and all your system does is the rendering (not like a meat packing plant, or maybe it is and it just smells better). Thin clients are like this, but the "browser" is in firmware. Take it off the net and you have a nice doorstop with a monitor, keyboard and mouse connection. Sort of like the old 3278 terminals or X-terms, depending on your era. Here's the main question about thin clients: are they cost effective and are they more secure. Ok. That was two questions. Sue me. I'm writing this, not you.


Are they cost effective? Well, that depends on your timeframe (and we had this discussion at work). There is an inherent up-front cost of implementing a thin-client solution. You need the clients (which are about $300 or so). That's the easy part. Now you need the back-end horsepower. Some places are using hardware solutions and some are using software. Hardware-wise you have blade servers, where each "blade" contains multiple processors and RAM, and multiple blades are connected across a high-speed backplane for communication between systems. However, that requires a storage solution, usually a Storage Attached Network or SAN. Software solutions need to run on mammoth computers with lots of horsepower; the desktop that is rendered on the thin client is run in a virtual machine. Storage can be local or SAN (SAN for really BIG solutions). So, you can see, there is a big up-front cost to implementing thin-clients. However, that investment, done wisely, can last for a longer timeframe than a desktop investment. So, short term, no they are not cost effective, but over the long term, they can be if done wisely.


Are they more secure? Well, again, that depends; but this time it depends on your definition of secure. For physical security, thin clients are great. There's no data that physically leaves the data center, unless it's printed. Everything is stored in a secure facility, so it's "safe" (physically). There are some aspects of computer security that are inherent with the thin client solution. If you're using virtual systems, security updates can be installed almost instantaneously, and the need for system administrators is decreased (but NOT eliminated!). So if you're using a Microsoft based client and it's Patch Tuesday, you can push the patches to your VM image, then force all your clients to restart (not a long process if you store your client state correctly), and Bob's your uncle. But, the opposite is also true. If there is an unknown weakness in your VM image, all your clients are vulnerable and so is your data.


As an aside, why are people in the IT industry using environmental terms to describe security problems? Data leakage? Data Spill? Call it what it is: a security problem. Someone did something they shouldn't have and now everyone knows something they weren't supposed to know. It's not a diaper; it's your data system.


So I guess my point is that the network is becoming the computer. But that doesn't mean things will get easier for the IT geeks out there. In fact, I think you'll need to be more careful because there is a false sense of security because "All my data is locked up in the datacenter, why should I worry". Trust me. Worry.


ADD moment: Before I close this, I want to say I've been introduced to a new social networking site for gamers (I know, social and gamer don't go together, ha ha, get over it). It's still in beta, so I've asked for permission to share info on it with you. Once I hear something, I'll let you know.