Network Computers

PCs aren't quite dead, but network computers are giving them a run for their money.
John XenakisJuly 1, 1997

Hooked on personal computers, with their expensive features and application suites? An antidote may be at hand–the network computer.

While PCs are still the norm at most companies, network computers are quickly making inroads. The reason: On average, network computers cost 20 percent to 50 percent less than full-fledged Windows PCs because they contain less hardware–no hard disk, no floppy disk drive, no CD-ROM–and because they don’t require separate licenses for the Windows operating system and various Windows application programs.

Instead, all data access is performed over the network, and data is stored on one or more servers. This means that unlike client/ server technology, when a new version of the application is available, only the server(s) needs to be updated. In client/server environments, both the server’s and the client’s hard disks must be updated.

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The advantages don’t end there, however. Network computers can display full graphical user interface elements sent by a centralized server–such as a Windows NT server or a Unix server–that runs all the application software. That’s a long way from the old mainframe days, when the client was a dumb terminal that could only display characters. In addition, the NC paradigm gives IS managers as much control as they used to have with mainframes: an end user can’t run a game or any other program unless the system administrator installs that program on the server.

Chris McCann, vice president of Westbury, N.Y.- based 1-800-Flowers Inc., doesn’t need any more convincing. “We’re a seasonal business, and at holiday time we ramp up to 2,000 agents on the phone,” says McCann. The agents at the telemarketing firm have been using dumb terminals with a character-based user interface accessing application software running on Unix-based servers. “We wanted to move to a client/server application and put PCs with a graphical user interface on everybody’s desk to improve productivity and make it faster to train our seasonal workers, but I could never justify the expense.”

Instead, McCann has started replacing the dumb terminals with network computers (from HDS Network Systems Inc.; see chart) costing $800 each, 30 percent of the cost of the PCs they would have used. They’ve developed their telemarketing application software in tools from Oracle Corp’s Network Computer Inc. subsidiary, because these tools support both character and graphical user interfaces, allowing the network computers to be rolled out gradually.

In addition, says Mc-Cann, “We’re seeing the same productivity increases with NCs that others have seen with PCs.”

The Network Experience

While McCann opted for HDS’s @workstations, network computers are close to becoming commodities–the brand is not as important as the applications that run on them. The NC, in fact, might be a stripped down version of a standard PC running Microsoft Windows, as it is in the NetPC, a version of the network computer designed jointly by Microsoft Corp. and Intel Corp. However, other processors and operating systems, even proprietary ones, can work just as well.

The applications themselves are close to becoming standardized. Basically, network computers all run applications in the same way. For example, if the application runs over the Internet or the company intranet and requires only a Web browser to run, the NC has a Web browser. If the application is written in Java and has a component that has to run on the client, the NC has a Java Virtual Machine.

The really exciting technology is that you can now use an NC to run any Windows application program, whether it’s your favorite word processor or a financial decision support system. The Windows application actually executes on a server running Windows NT. The application program instructs NT to display an object on the user’s screen, and the NT server communicates with the NC to display the object on its screen.

Microsoft Windows was never originally set up to handle this kind of NC user interface. When a Windows application program gives Windows the command to “draw a button on the user’s screen,” Windows is set up to draw it on the monitor for the computer running Windows. To get that button drawn on a remote NC’s monitor requires additional technology, and two competing ones have been developed.

Helping Hands

Citrix Systems Inc. (800-437-7503; has developed a technology called the Independent Computing Architecture (ICA), available in a product called WinFrame. When the application wants to draw a button, WinFrame “draws” it by creating an image of the button in a block of storage in memory, and transmits that block to the NC for display on the user’s screen.

Insignia Solutions Inc. (408-327-6000; www. has developed a different technology, using X.11, which has been available for a long time in the Unix world, and made it available in a product called NTrigue. When the application wants to draw a button, NTrigue simply transmits the “draw a button” command to the NC. Actually, Insignia Solutions has purchased the ICA technology from Citrix Systems, and includes both ICA and X.11 in NTrigue, so that either or both can be used. ICA and X.11 produce identical results, but they have different performance characteristics, depending on the size of the monitor display and the complexity of what’s being displayed.

No Comparison

The availability of this type of interface technology was one reason Don Resh, CIO of Retired Persons Services Inc., opted to go the NC route. RPS, in fact, is adopting NCs with a vengeance, and by the time the company is done, every PC will be replaced by an NC. The pharmaceutical telemarketing firm has already deployed 1,000 NCs, using NTrigue with ICA, mostly for the telemarketing and customer service agents, and more are planned for access to the company’s Lawson Software accounting system. “Three hundred of the NCs have been deployed to other kinds of areas– human resources, executive assistants, and so forth. I wanted to see if I could replace PCs with NCs in an environment where people thought they had to have a PC to run Windows applications, and I’ve been very successful there also.”

In the end, however, it has been hardest to ignore the cost advantages of NCs. Resh, in fact, has done a cost analysis of the difference between 1,000 NCs and 1,000 PCs over five years, and the results are startling:

  • Each NC costs $1,400, which is at the high end for an NC, because the configuration chosen by Resh was loaded with capabilities: Java capability, a version of the Netscape Web browser, NTrigue with both protocols (ICA and X.11), and several terminal emulators for accessing several mainframe and Unix computer systems. However, a PC with similar capabilities would cost $2,400, so Resh saved $1,000 per computer, or $1 million on 1,000 computers.
  • Resh actually had to spend more for NT servers when using NCs than when using PCs. The reason is that the servers have to do more work–actually execute the Windows applications–when NCs are connected than when PCs are connected. Servers for the 1,000-PC network cost $150,000 and $500,000 for the NC network.
  • The big savings, though, come with support. Industry estimates are that it costs about $10,000 per year to support a PC, but Resh has computed it at RPS to be about $7,000 per PC. But he estimates that it costs only $500 per year to support an NC, or $5 million for 1,000 NCs for five years. That’s a total net savings over PCs of $32.5 million in five years.

With that kind of savings, there’s little doubt that NCs will have a substantial impact on corporate IS departments over the next 10 years. Certain users–laptop users, power users, and software developers, for example– may still require full-fledged PCs, but for everyone else, network computers are a viable, low-cost alternative.

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