Sun Microsystems Inc. has renewed its efforts to get the world interested in its thin-client computing platform, Sun Ray. Earlier this year, the company released both a new hardware client (the Sun Ray 170) and server software—including a version that runs on Linux.
I have a long history with thin-client computing, dating back to my days installing SCO Unix 386-based terminals in law offices for a Wyse VAR. In general, that history has been less than pleasant—especially those episodes where some flavor of Unix (and novice Unix users) was involved.
But, based on my experience testing Sun Ray on Linux, I think I’ve finally gotten over my dread of thin clients.
I did about a month of usability testing of a Sun Fire V20 server loaded with SuSE Linux, Sun’s Java Desktop System 2, Sun Ray Server Software 3 and a small network of Sun Ray 170 clients. Based on that experience, I think it’s safe to say that Unix-based thin-client computing is finally (relatively) safe for the unwashed masses—at least in limited doses.
If you spend most of your day in a Web-based application, in a spreadsheet or word processing document, or in e-mail, then you probably won’t notice much of a difference when someone replaces your Windows PC with a Sun Ray 170—except possibly the additional room on your work surface.
I looked at Sun Ray specifically to see how well it would hold up as a Windows alternative for a small to midsized office environment. With Java Desktop System, I found most of the bases were covered, or could easily be covered with additional commercial or open-source software. And for the few tasks where Windows is still required, there’s an ICA (Independent Computing Architecture) client available to bridge users over.
Thin-client computing promoters have long promised reduced costs—cheaper desktop units, lower support costs and easier maintenance because everything’s centralized on a multiuser server. But except for very narrow use cases, the history of thin-client computing is littered with the bodies of less-than-successful projects.
With software licensing (and in the case of Windows-based thin-client solutions, even OS licensing) still linked to user headcount, acquisition costs didn’t drop that much. Performance suffered. And the user experience wasn’t close enough to working on a PC—especially when things like audio- and video-intensive applications were involved.
Thin-client solutions haven’t always been the best economic option for the solution providers, either. Software licensing costs ate away much of the potential profit margin for Windows-based thin clients, making developing solutions on them less than attractive. And when you could sell another white box instead, why bother?
On the surface, just in terms of acquisition cost, the equation hasn’t changed much. A Sun Ray 170 lists for around $1,050, though Sun does offer the Sun Ray 170 at a discount for education and research customers. You could probably find a way to get a PC with a 17-inch LCD display for that much.
Sun Ray Server Software 3 for Linux costs $99 for a single user, $1,780 for a 20-user license and $7,900 for a 100-user license; you can get a site license for $39,500. Add the cost of the server hardware, support for the server operating system (SuSE or Red Hat), and the cost of installing a 20-user network of Sun Rays isn’t that much less than installing 20 PCs and a Windows server.
So, what’s the point of going with a thin-client solution if it costs about the same? The answer in Sun Ray’s case is total cost of ownership.
Thin-client networks have shown to be a lot cheaper to support than PC-based solutions—at least in situations in which network lag doesn’t drag down user productivity, the users don’t need the mobility of laptops, and the users are willing to forgo the all-in-one functionality of a PC.
There’s also a potential upside from reduced software licensing costs.
The configuration I tested included Java Desktop System Release 2 for Linux, which is $100 per desktop per year, including maintenance—and includes the StarOffice suite of office applications, an e-mail and calendaring client compatible with Microsoft Exchange, and most of the other applications needed for daily office use. And if you’re a solution provider, you’ve got any number of open-source desktop environments that you can assemble a solution from with no licensing costs whatsoever—especially if you’re planning to provide direct support to your customers.
On the other hand, supporting JDS on Sun Ray is dirt simple. The administrative tools for adding and managing users provided in JDS are as simple and intuitive as those in a basic Windows environment—and much simpler than those for a Windows network.
Next Page: Sun Ray’s sexiest feature.