Networking 101: A Cloud Full of Thin Clients

December 23, 2011, By George Lang

Last week we opened a can of networking worms called the Cloud. Because of its ubiquitous infiltration into techno-babble literature, and its relative hazy definition therein, we’ve decided to investigate the Cloud a bit further this week. From the perspective of the client computer (e.g., netbook, tablet, and smartphone) currently using the Cloud, we find it is quite instructive to review the history of thin-client computing in general, as some interesting analogies are currently repeating themselves.

When network computing first started to blossom, the term thin-client referred to terminal stations, mostly used in business networks, that connected to mainframe computers. Most, if not all, processing took place at the mainframe and not at the local user terminal stations (i.e., thin-clients). This scenario has since turned nearly 180 degrees to where almost all business users now have a complete computer at their local station. The terminals are now known as fat-clients. A new form of thin-client, however, is starting to creep in. Some refer to these new thin-clients as Intelligent-Clients (Intel).

As related in last week’s article, Cloud computing has become the new poster child for networks everywhere; not only for business applications, but for the personal computer (PC) as well. Recent trends show a marked move to less powerful computers, like netbooks, tablet computers, and handheld devices like smartphones. It is interesting to view this trend as a move back to thin-client, terminal computing. “Thin clients can be designed with much more modest hardware, because they perform much more modest operations” (Wikipedia). The netbook, tablet, and smartphone, while much more powerful than their 1990 thin-client predecessors, are designed with a more modest hardware profile because they are more likely to be implemented using the processing power of the Cloud.

Again, the vast majority of the processing is starting to take place on Cloud servers (i.e., analogous to the old mainframes); and the clients are becoming inexpensive terminals that emulate the old thin-client stations.

This trend is partially driven by a competitive, capitalist marketplace; but also by consumer need to operate within what we like to refer to as a thin-economy. Sparse disposable income has consumers moving to the $199.99 Amazon Kindle Fire in lieu of the 499.99 Apple iPad; choosing the $299.99 Google Chromebook by Samsung and other netbooks over full-blown laptop computers; and, most impressively, choosing computing smartphones, while avoiding regular cellphones altogether.

Google's $299.99 Chromebook by Samsung

Alas, history seems to be repeating itself as intelligent thin-clients re-emerge as a primary means of accomplishing the same thing in a more efficient way. But will it last this time? Today’s thin-clients require 365/24/7 uptime to be successful. Will the Internet and its Cloud networks be up to the task? Can Cloud hosting companies eliminate downtime entirely? Questions that will all be answered in the relatively near future as Cloud computing becomes the new 21st Century, intelligent-client experiment.

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