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Desktop Architecture Selection Guide

This article examines some of the main business drivers behind the current trend towards adoption of thin client desktop solutions. The article provides useful insights on the benefits and drawbacks of the various candidate components for an alternative desktop environment. It also provides guidelines on non-functional requirements and project life-cycle approaches. This article is targeted to an introductory reader.
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Over the past ten years, most companies have opted for a distributed desktop model engineered so that each desktop has the same hardware and software configuration and provides the same services (for example, office and business applications), irrespective of the line of business for which it is intended. This one-size-fits-all, or thick client, strategy is expensive and complex to operate. Administrators have to support whole populations of PCs, replicate frequent software upgrades, fix PCs at the user's desk, and cope with issues created by security flaws and the need for distributed backups. Add to this the hidden costs of user self-support and lost productivity through failed systems, and the total cost of ownership (TCO) becomes considerable.

Recently, users and managers who are required to fund desktop infrastructures have become increasingly conscious that placing the processing power and complexity of a 1980's mainframe on every user's desk is not necessarily the panacea that it might have seemed a few years ago. Some of the negative factors influencing this thinking are:

  • Cost of ownership

  • The rate of change of the underlying hardware and the frequent rerelease of costly software products are forcing IT departments and users into expensive upgrade cycles.

  • Manageability

  • Each thick client solution contains a complex set of hardware and a fully-fledged operating system, which in turn support an application stack. When failures occur or software products need to be updated, there is a significant requirement for relatively expensive resources (that is, IT support people) to diagnose problems, fix the problems, and rebuild the systems.

  • Security

  • It would appear that the most popular systems are those most frequently subjected to malicious attacks. The daily release of security bulletins from the authors of these systems reveal the high level of vulnerability in some of their products and the near impossibility of creating a secure environment based on such products.

  • Reliability

  • Complexity and component count are the primary drivers of failure rates. By placing large numbers of sophisticated systems on desktops, rather than smaller numbers of more manageable systems in the data center, companies are ensuring that failures will be more frequent and harder to resolve.

Many organizations are actively pursuing alternative solutions that can remove or ameliorate some of these obstacles to user satisfaction and corporate progress. In many instances, users are evaluating alternative application-access devices that enable them to move toward a more controlled and server-centric service delivery environment. Candidate replacements include the large number of browser-based and Java™ technology-enabled devices such as 3G phones, PDAs, and thin client devices. As the availability of web services increases and as organizations move to web-based delivery of their in-house applications, such devices will have adequate computing and presentation capacity to meet the needs of the vast majority of users.

At a time when IT budgets are under close scrutiny, it is prudent for IT and IS managers, planners, and strategists to evaluate the potential of reducing cost and complexity by deploying the server-centric paradigm and to be prepared to discard some of their legacy environments. This article provides information and pointers to help designers to shape less expensive and more reliable desktop architectures.

Current Approaches to Desktop Architectures

Recent approaches to desktop architecture address the problems of a thick client architecture by using a centralized model in which applications are delivered as services to users on any device. This gives the IT organization the flexibility and control to deliver only those services that are necessary for the individual user. Thus, overall TCO is reduced and manageability improved.

Built around the simplicity of thin client devices such as the Sun Ray™ ultra-thin client, a centralized desktop architecture provides access to applications running on Microsoft Windows, the Solaris™ Operating System (Solaris OS), and other platforms from a single desktop. Users can access the applications they need, and administration of the system is simplified. The desktop runs no software or operating system, so it never needs upgrading. Users can also choose the ease-of-use and low cost of alternative, open source productivity software such as the StarOffice™ Office Suite and Mozilla™. In the data center, a consolidated server solution runs the operating systems so that updates happen at one place and are immediately available to all desktop users.

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