Linux Fits Well On Thin Clients

Microsoft may still rule the desktop PC, but Linux has built a strong and growing presence in the thin client market.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

November 10, 2004

5 Min Read

Linux is making significant inroads in the thin client market, even as it struggles to break Microsoft's stranglehold on the desktop. On thin clients, where the underlying operating system is less important and cost-cutting is a high priority, many experts agree that the open-source operating system has established itself as a compelling alternative to Windows.

Thin Clients, Big Business
The market for thin clients--network-based computers with little or no local storage--has long taken a back seat to relatively cheap, powerful desktop PCs. Analysts predict this will change as more firms look to cut management and configuration costs, beef up security, and implement Web services within their organizations.

This is good news for Linux, which is well-suited as a thin client OS and is already a major player in the thin client market: According to IDC analyst Bob O'Donnell, Linux currently owns between 18 and 20 percent of the market. O'Donnell also projects this share to remain at 20 percent through 2008--a trend that indicates solid growth, since the thin client market as a whole is growing by about 20 percent a year.

Junaid Qurashi, product manager for the Wyse Linux line, said his company uses Linux for its thin client offerings because the market was clamoring for it. "In the past, our leadership has been in thin clients in the Windows market," he said, "but recently Linux has come up as an emerging operating system in the market, so we looked at it and dived into it and have had good success."

The OS Matters Less
Linux has made inroads against Windows in the thin client market because the underlying operating system matters less, according to Qurashi. "The way thin clients work, they don't have a hard drive or floppy. They run out of embedded flash memory and carry all the necessary protocols to connect to different applications and operating systems," he said. "The beauty is that all of the applications run on the server, using server processing power, while display, keyboard and mouse happen on the client."

Jeff Wade, worldwide Linux marketing manager at HP, agreed that Linux is more successful on thin clients than on the desktop because the client-side operating system is so much less important. "In the thin client environment, the operating system that runs on the thin client is completely immaterial and transparent to the end user because all of the applications are hosted on the back end server," he said. "It just doesn't make any difference what you are running on the client side."

Linux Delivers The Goods
The thin client market also gets the same benefits that other platforms get from using Linux: access to the Linux development community, the ability to view and work with source code, and superior security and networking functionality.

"The reason Linux makes the most sense is because Linux provides functionality inherently in the product," Qurashi stated. "X11 and terminal emulation are part of Linux, and it's simple to access them."

"There is a huge community that provides protocols for Linux to connect to the Windows world," he added. "Linux is the operating system that gives you the most heterogeneous flexibility today. Windows gives you access to Windows, but not to non-Windows."

Qurashi also said Windows' roots as a desktop operating system hurt it in networking environments: "The reason Linux will prevail on thin client is that the Linux value proposition came from the server side of the market, not from the desktop side. Windows came from the desktop."

"If you look at enterprises today, the biggest value proposition is security, manageability, affordability and reliability," all of which Linux provides, Qurashi said.

HP's Wade also cited the affordability factor for the growing popularity of Linux over Windows for many organizations. "Linux offers some flexibility in offering different value products. Customers don't have to pay for the operating system license, so we can offer better pricing without giving up features, compatibility and performance," he said.

Thin Clients Hit The Road
Over the next several years, Redmonk analyst Stephen O'Grady said the thin client market will expand beyond its traditional boundaries. More users, he said, will carry handheld thin client devices with some built-in memory, connected to the network via a wireless connection, creating new opportunities for thin clients and the Linux operating system.

"One of the reason thin clients are becoming a much more reasonable proposition is the dramatic increase in network productivity options," O'Grady said. "There are a number of emerging networking opportunities that make the promise of a thin client much more reasonable than a couple of years ago."

O'Grady also said he sees strength in the community aspect of Linux for this segment of the thin client market. "The fact there is a community comes into play, more often than not, when you need to customize hardware or a chip, and you can find a way to do that. If you are an OEM or hardware manufacturer, you can find applications that will support the thin client for you," he said.

Whether companies use thin clients as traditional network appliances or adapt a more futuristic approach such as using handheld devices, O'Grady said the key to the Linux value proposition is its flexibility.

"When I was at Novell's Brain Share last spring, a couple of the Novell folks said that one of the important things they came away with was that it's not just Linux; it's beyond Linux," he said. "It's about interoperability and transferability."

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