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October 5, 1997updated 01 Sep 2016 6:09pm

WHY IT’S PREMATURE TO PREDICT END OF CLIENT/SERVER COMPUTING

By CBR Staff Writer

Part two of an article by Kenny MacIver from Computer Business Review, a sister publication.

What is client/server computing anyhow? Some analysts and executives at other companies argue that it still is the primary computing model and that Ellison’s view is conveniently narrow – narrow enough to allow him to point to the PC as the source of the downfall of client/server. From Oracle’s point of view, any idea that helps move the industry power pendulum back towards server-centric computing is worth backing. A broader vision says that the client in a client/ server architecture need not be a PC – it can be any device. In fact, it is argued that the enabling technologies of the thin client, the Java programming language and the internet, broaden the client/server model rather than kill it off. The internet is client/server computing, says Tom Austin, an analyst with the Gartner Group. He says the technology shifts currently underway will drive the ultimate goal of client/server: to offer the ability for anyone to access any resource from anywhere without having to own a special set of software or a specific device. As the ‘dial tone’ for the global network, the internet will present a series of universally standardized layers between logic running on the user’s client device and data and logic running elsewhere. What the internet client/server revolution is about is standardized, broadly accessible technology, global in scope. Its implication is that new client/server enterprise systems should no longer be designed and implemented in isolation from its capabilities, says Austin.

Living breathing animal

Add to that meshing of ‘first phase’ client/server and the internet the prediction by the Gartner Group that PCs will still sit on at least 60% of commercial desktops in the year 2001, and the conclusion emerges that the PC mode of client/server is by no means dead. At the same time, some of the major causes of client/server’s shortcomings are starting to be addressed. For example, application development toolsets that can get round the ‘everything but data on the PC’ mode are now reaching maturity. Forte Software Inc and Nat Systems Inc are just two that offer a mechanism for partitioning application code so that each part of an application runs where it is best suited. And there are plenty of companies within the systems management software world which have argued that the failure of many client/server projects was due to the lack of systems management tools to handle the problems that client/server threw up. Frank Moss, the head of Tivoli Systems, which controls all of IBM’s systems management activities, is often quoted as saying that the biggest challenge in the successful use of client/server systems is the management of distributed systems – something he describes as a living breathing animal that needs taming.

By Kenny MacIver

But there are now scores of individual tools and management environments designed to address the problems that the network computer lobby says are best fixed by eliminating the PC. Others active in taming the client/server beast are less obvious candidates. The shortcomings of the PC highlighted by the network computer has launched Microsoft and its PC partners into a frenzy of activity – all focused on bring down the overall cost of at least some classes of PC and to make all desktop machines much more manageable. Cutting the overall costs has not been easy – the primary means has been for PC vendors to use microprocessor clones of Intel’s Pentium range and to offer sealed, diskless PCs so that systems administrators can maintain control over what software is installed in the machine and swop in new machines in the event of a fault without fear of incompatibility. Nevertheless, with margins already ultra-thin at the lower end of the PC market, getting and keeping such ‘NetPC’ machines below the $1,000 price point continues to be a constant challenge. At the same time, Microsoft has half a dozen projects underway under the ‘Zero Administration for Windows’ initiative, a set of systems management tools and component monitoring modules designed to remove the high running cost objection to the corporate PC. That has not stopped many suppliers downplaying client/server in their marketing collateral. But that is as much to do with the new opportunities provided by the advantages that network computer technologies have over the PC than it does a backlash against client/server. Oracle’s Ray Lane, a one-time client/server stalwart, says: We want to have proof points that show deploying applications under a network computer architecture come in at 50% lower cost [than client/server]. When you hear the NC [cost of ownership] price of $500 and that PCs cost $8,000 to $12,000 a year, 50% sounds like a modest goal. But I feel like it is crazy to go about saying more than that. We hope we get to 75%, but 50% is the minimum we expect and that is enough to get anyone excited. But many analysts are sceptical about just why network computing’s backers are so keen to hit the destruct button on client/server. With many companies from the PC side of the business struggling to invent a business model that will allow them to continue to prosper in an internet world, Oracle has tried to capitalize on a historical advantage. Oracle is the kind of company that would be comfortable with this business model, says David Card, a software analyst with market research group IDC. They don’t have a very big presence on the desktop now, so a paradigm shift that involves a shaking up of the players down there would suit them just fine. As he points out, Microsoft’s business model is essentially to get $100 per seat per year per business. The reason they are so opposed to network computing is because they are not sure how they’ll continue to get that $100, says Card.

Heads down computing

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According to Card, the kinds of applications where the network makes sense are where the administration costs of running your network outweigh the need for providing access to PC applications. This covers a variety of areas: heads down computing, people pounding away at the same application all day long who may only need casual access to e-mail and word processing. In terms of user seats, that translates into 40% of users whose jobs involve purely production office tasks using NCs by the year 2001, says Gartner. In fact, the network computing phenomena will not replace client/server, in many opinions, but give birth to a new more far-reaching model. As David Lyon, a strategic planning director at Hewlett-Packard, says: We have got to get away from the client/server model to the any-to-any model. I am not predicting the death of client/server. It will be around for ever. But there will be another model – any-to-any computing, where you don’t have to have a computer with a terminal to go through the internet – any appliance that can have an address on the net will do.

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