The Japanese company on Monday introduced the Virtual PC Center, a combination of proprietary hardware and software that NEC says can run PC applications, including audio, graphics, and video, on a thin-client without any latency problems.
The concept of providing knowledge workers with dumb terminals attached to a server for delivering applications and storing data has been around for a long time. The appeal is easier management and lower maintenance costs when compared with the security, software, and hardware problems that arise on desktop PCs. With no hard drives, thin clients are less likely to be infected with viruses, and have fewer parts that can go wrong.
The problem, however, has been in performance. Because thin clients run off a remote server, applications just don't run as fast. "Performance has been one of the biggest issues holding the technology back," said Toni Dubois, analyst for Current Analysis. In addition, company employees often prefer to have control over their PCs.
While it doesn't address employee preferences, NEC's new product does attack the performance issues as they relate to running multimedia applications, which are often used in Web conferencing or as training tools. Virtual PC Center eliminates the latency issues by dividing the processing tasks between the server and the thin client.
NEC does this through a software driver on the server that intercepts video, audio, and graphics files before they reach the server's Intel Xeon processor. The files are then shipped to the thin client, which has its own graphics processor to run the content. By splitting the workload, the thin-client system performs at a level equal to a conventional desktop PC architecture, NEC says.
While the Virtual PC Center sounds good on paper, NEC will have to overcome widespread negative perceptions about thin clients through marketing, customer case studies, and independent benchmarks, Dubois said. "It's definitely interesting talk, but the proof will be in getting it to market."
NEC's own numbers are certainly attractive. When compared with the use of desktop PCs, the Virtual PC Center costs from 30% to 35% less to maintain over a three-year period than desktop PCs. To run multiple instances of Windows, the NEC server ships with VMware's virtualization software, and also contains NEC's SigmaSystemCenter management tools.
Virtual PC Center's thin-clients run on a trimmed-down version of Linux from Wyse Technology. The machines cost $349 apiece. The server, hardware, and software costs $19,900 for 20 users; and $44,900 for 50 users. The servers can be used in a cluster for large deployments, with NEC's SigmaSystemCenter handling failover, load balancing, and other management chores.
NEC isn't alone in offering thin clients. Hewlett-Packard in January expanded its offerings with new products and upgrades.