Sun adds Linux support to Sun Ray thin clients

Von Patrick Thibodeau

Sun Microsystems Inc. this week said the server software that supports its Sun Ray thin-client devices can now run on x86-based Linux systems in addition to Sparc/Solaris machines.

Sun Ray Server Software 3.0 also includes new bandwidth adaptation and management technology that"s designed to make it easier for IT managers to support remote use of the thin clients. Because of reduced bandwidth needs, the devices can now be linked to back-office systems via Digital Subscriber Line or cable modem connections, said Sun, which also introduced a thin client with a 17-in. screen.

Time Warner Cable is a large Sun Ray user, with about 750 of the terminals. Cesar Beltran, vice president of IT at the Time Warner Inc. division"s data center facilities in New York, said he"s interested in both of the major new features that Sun is adding to the Sun Ray server software.

Beltran plans to investigate the possibility of switching from the UltraSparc-based Solaris servers that currently support Time Warner Cable"s Sun Ray users to x86 hardware running Linux. "We"re exploring ways to eliminate some costs," he said.

In addition, using Linux would help employees who provide technical support to customers who access the Internet on Linux-based desktop systems equipped with cable modems, according to Beltran. The workers would be able to enter Linux commands at their terminals to help troubleshoot customer problems.

Telecommuting niche

Time Warner Cable is also looking at allowing its customer service workers to telecommute in order to increase workforce flexibility and respond to the demands of handling some 40,000 customer calls daily, Beltran said. The telecommuting could start as early as next year, but a final decision hasn"t been made.

Beltran said thin clients provide better data security than full PCs do and require little support from IT staffers. He envisions end users taking the thin-client terminals home with instructions on how to hook them up to DSL or cable modems on their own.

Bob O"Donnell, an analyst at IDC in Framingham, Mass., said telecommuting via thin clients is a niche that could grow as part of an overall increase in corporate use of the devices. IDC expects shipments of 1.6 million thin clients worldwide this year, a 9.4 percent increase over last year"s level, and it"s forecasting a 19 percent jump in shipments next year.

"We think the awareness level is growing, the cost equation makes more sense, and obviously the (PC) security problem is going to get worse and worse," O"Donnell said. For now, thin clients continue to be deployed primarily in call centers and as part of point-of-sale systems, according to O"Donnell and other analysts.

Tyler Best, CIO at Vanguard Car Rental USA Inc., a Tulsa, Okla.-based company that owns the National and Alamo brands, said Vanguard is installing Windows-based thin clients from Hewlett-Packard Co. in its point-of-sale systems. The thin clients are about 72 percent less expensive than fully loaded PCs, Best said.

"I think the thin client has a place at the point of sale," Tyler said. "I"m not so sure I would put it in my corporate environment." He added that PCs aren"t very expensive and that end users in finance and other corporate departments need more functionality than point-of-sale workers do.