October 18, 2002

NeoLinux: Thin client distro can save enterprises money, headaches

-By Grant Gross -

One of the burning questions among enterprise customers interested in Linux has long been: How do I run the Open Source operating system and Windows applications at the same time? While the Wine project and companies like Codeweavers and VMware have attacked the problem from one angle, a company called Neoware has long been offering a different solution, by offering Linux thin clients that can run Windows programs from a terminal server.

The thin client setup running NeoLinux also has the advantage of being cheap to maintain, with none of the security headaches of regular Windows PCs on employees' desks.

Last week, Neoware released version 2.4 of its NeoLinux thin client distribution. As with past versions, 2.4 features Citrix ICA [Independent Computing Architecture] and Microsoft RDP [Remote
Desktop Protocol] that allow thin client users to access virtually any Windows application on the main server, including Microsoft Office.

The Neoware thin client systems are essentially Linux terminal servers. A single machine serves up applications to dozens of inexpensive thin client machines with no floppy disk drives or hard drives. That means fewer administrative costs than owning a fleet of full-fledged PCs, says Howie Hunger, Neoware's executive vice president of worldwide marketing and business development, because you're only maintaining software one one server and employees are limited in what they can do with the thin clients.

"They have a really low cost of ownership, because you can really tighten down what the user can do," Hunger says. "There's no floppy disk drive on a thin client. I had a customer who referred to the floppy disk drive as the 'virus insertion device.' You don't have people bringing in their personal copy of Quicken or the kid's last game."

The Neoware solution doesn't necessarily mean lower license costs, which is normally a benefit of running Linux instead of Windows. Neoware upgrades cost $69 per seat or more, and companies serving Windows applications from the main server to multiple thin clients still have to answer to Microsoft's licensing demands.

"The real savings here is the generic term, 'cost of ownership,'" Hunger says.
"I can run a very large number of users on a relatively small powered server. I can share the disk access on that server, so instead of having 200 meg of Microsoft OS on every hard file on everybody's desk, I don't have to have that any more."

In addition, when you want to upgrade your software, you do it once on the server instead of dozens or hundreds of times on every employee's PC. "I change the code one time on the server, and as soon as the next person asks for Office, all 200 users on that server have access to that code," Hunger says. "We refer to that as rapid deployment."

Hunger says the savings can potentially be huge, especially for large enterprises. Gartner Group estimates that a thin client model can be 40 to 60 percent cheaper than running individual PCs, he says, and Gartner pegs the cost per enterprise PC seat at $5,000 to $10,000 a year.

Running NeoLinux in retail

Brian Dewey, network engineer at furniture retail chain Raymour and Flanigan, says the two-year-old Neoware system his company runs saves him a lot of headaches. The company runs about 600 thin clients at about 60 locations.

Dewey maintains that system pretty much by himself, while another couple of people maintain the company's 150 PCs. "We didn't have the support structure for full PCs," he says. "We'd be doubling or tripling our [support] staff to support the desktops."

Workers access purchasing and inventory software running on a Unix box with the thin clients, and they can access the company's Web site and intranet. A few service centers also run Microsoft Access through the thin clients. The thin clients aren't set up to get other Internet access, so Dewey doesn't worry about viruses or porn.

"There's no viruses, there's a simple menu structure with only three or four items," he says.

And because most of the thin clients aren't running Windows apps, the company saves license costs as well, Dewey says.

New in 2.4

Beyond the Windows emulation, the new feature in NeoLinux 2.4 is the exclusive availability of "genuine" IBM 3270/5250 thin client emulators, which allows customers to run mainframe and AS/400
applications with full IBM compatibility. The Neoware IBM 3270/5250
emulator was developed by IBM and is available for $59 per appliance.

You might be surprised at how many places are still running those "green screen" text-terminal IBM systems, Hunger says. He knows of at least one state motor vehicle department system still keeping all its driver information on an old IBM mainframe connected to a 3270 device.

The state is switching to Neoware thin clients, Hunger says, which will allow state workers to do such modern tasks as access drivers license photos and run Web-based applications in addition to accessing the old 3270 data. "It's a great transition vehicle to wean people off the single device that was the green screen into a centrally managed thin client," he says.


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