Windows Terminals – one customer’s trials

Partners or customers who have no practical experience of Windows Terminals but who are familiar with their technical details often find it hard to understand the merits of the Sun Ray approach. This can be frustrating – IT people sense that PCs are not always the right choice for their customers or users and are familiar with the thin client concept, but when they look at the initial capital cost of a Sun Ray solution compared to a WinTerm solution they often claim the slightly higher outlay for the Sun Ray solution isn’t worth it.
We have plenty of financial data and practical examples of why Sun Ray is absolutely worth it, but repeating this mantra day after day to people who only understand the PC model and have never had any practical experience of the alternatives can get to be very frustrating. Last week, however, my spirits recieved a real boost when I got to talk to a customer who’s worked with Windows Terminals for 5 years and was able to explain first hand to me the problems they had faced, vindicating Sun’s business and technical message entirely. I know all the arguments against WinTerms and have successfully persuaded customers in the past, but it was great to hear these facts first hand, direct from the horse’s mouth!
A thin client solution for Windows meets one very clear business need: delivering Windows applications to users as securely and cost-effectively as possible. There are two components we have to address to meet this business need fully:

  • Centralisation of Windows applications onto central servers
  • Deployment of a desktop device which allows users to interact with those centrally hosted applications

The first point is addressed with software from the likes of Citrix, Tarantella, Windows Terminal Services, etc, etc. The merits of these applications are outside of the scope of this discussion.
Most customers or partners I talk to are faced with two choices when it comes to the second point – offer your customers a Sun Ray solution or a WinTerm solution. I regularly find myself talking to partners who often already sell WinTerms, or customers who are using PCs and are considering the alternatives.
Let’s assume a customer has chosen how they are going to address the first point. They’ve done the necessary work, it’s gone well, Windows apps are centralised, tested and working. The next stage is to look at what device to stick on their users’ desktops to access those centralised apps.
The WinTerm argument is a seductive one. Take away everything unnecessary out of a PC and provide some software to administer large numbers of devices in a simple way. Run an embedded OS on the ‘cut down PC’. The embedded OS runs the client I need to connect to my Windows app servers and display the apps on a user’s screen. The result is a device that is apparently very ‘cheap’ to buy. It has none of the flexibility of a PC, but it is simple.
The Sun Ray approach takes a different view:
Any OS present on the desktop device costs money to manage, upgrade and administer, so we don’t have one. The Sun Ray device on the desk is like a telephone. Sure, it can do multimedia, and drive monitors with high resolutions, but it’s pretty dumb. Unlike an X-Terminal or WinTerm, there’s no OS that needs to be managed. Firmware is minute and never needs an admin to waste time with patches, device driver issues, manual deploymebt or debugging. We have some other cool stuff, such as smartcards. Once a user has inserted a smartcard and started a session on the Sun Ray controller managing the network of Sun Ray devices, he or she can move to any other Sun Ray, insert the card and have the session appear on whichever device is now being used.
The devices are managed by a server or ‘Sun Ray controller’ that acts much like a PBX, controlling devices on the users’ desktop, running the client app that deals with connecting to Citrix or Teriminal Services and making sure the results are directed to the screen of the user running those apps. Once it’s installed it sits there reliably, doing its job, like any decent Solaris or Linux box would do. We don’t have to spend time and money looking after it. The Sun Ray controllers are low cost Sparc or Opteron boxes, immune to Windows security issues. It’s boring, but they just work.
The main advantages of this approach are that I never have to administer the devices on my desktop any more. I’ve got the full colour screen, mouse and other nice things the PC era ushered in, but I have the management costs of a dumb terminal talking to a mainframe.
So what’s the problem then? Partners usually see one device for the WinTerm solution and see a Sun Ray and a Sun Ray controller for the other. They conclude that the tiny extra cost is not worth it and decide to recommend WinTerms to their customers. Our arguments are that you need to manage a WinTerm, you have hardware to upgrade, units are regularly end-of-lifed, management software is required and so on. We explain how the first year of a Sun Ray deployment costs much the same as a WinTerm, but whilst Sun Ray TCO drops significantly in the second year, WinTerm costs remain high.
In short, we say that a WinTerm doesn’t meet the second requirement that is needed to meet the business need fully.
But are these arguments valid? Let’s look at the experience of the customer I met with last week. Whilst you read this, remember the customer’s motivation for choosing thin clients in the first place – the reason for buying WinTerms was for users to have a low cost device that cost little to manage…
Customer A put a call centre in place about 5 years ago. Judging correctly that a thin client model offered better Total Cost of Ownership than a PC network, they centralised their client apps onto a Windows Terminal Services farm and chose WinTerms from Vendor W for the desktop. They had issues with these devices not performing as well as possible – the cpu, memory and video requirements were not up to the job. They replaced these units with units from Vendor X. Vendor X was then bought by Vendor Y, who discontinued support for the units Customer A had. Customer A needed to expand the number of users which meant they had to buy different units from their new vendor, along with a different set of management software to manage them. They continued to use the old units with their old third party management tool.
At this stage we’re a short time into the 5 year period we are describing and the ‘simple to manage’ WinTerm solution has now gone through three types of hardware. Tne first lot has been ditched, two versions remain on users’ desks, requiring two different sets of tools to manage them. And manage them they have to. As the call centre grows new units are deployed – they need patching and local configuration before they are up and running.
Now they are hit with another issue. As the call centre grows, or units have internal failures of fan, cpu, etc, they need to be replaced. This is not possible, however! Vendor Y has end-of-lifed previous models, so only the latest models can be bought. These are different in terms of configuration requirements and device driver management. What we now have is multiple models from two vendors requiring multiple different tasks to deploy and manage them and multiple different warranties and support contracts to manage. If all the apps are centralised and the devices are not meant to perform anything more than simply running a Terminal Services client why do new models even need to be released to the market?
Security and patching the embedded Windows CE OS is not difficult and happens once or twice every two years, but it still needs to be done. If a device fails, it takes ‘an engineer’ to go to the desk and replace it, schedule an OS upgrade, add new memory if required, along with other tasks. Whilst these tasks are not complicated to carry out, they take up admins’ time.
A row of desks in the call centre has touch screens put in. They now need to manage a different set of device drivers for each desktop device, due to the mix of devices they have. Another row wants a certain device added, but those units don’t support the drivers for those devices, so new units have to be bought.
Midway through this period, the graphics performance of earlier units is deemed not be to be good enough any more, so those units are replaced after three years, mirroring the three year hardware upgrade path many customers go through with PCs – additional costs in terms of HW purchasing, new licences for the management software, etc, etc. The same issues that are affecting a PC network are now affecting the thin client network, but with the extra cost of the centralised app servers and none of the flexibility of a standard PC.
Now comes the final issue. For various valid reasons, the customer decides to move from using Windows Terminal Services to using Citrix on their application servers.
The version of the Citrix client they need is only supported on embedded Windows XP. Their thin clients run Windows CE. Their thin clients, many of which are under three years old, cannot have their OS upgraded and even if they could, the hardware spec they have isn’t enough to run embedded XP.
The functionality they require from Citrix is key to meeting a certain business requirement, so they either have to ditch several hundred ‘low cost’ thin clients and start the entire cycle again, or stick with what they have, watching as support for their software and hardware slowly ceases.
So much for a ‘low cost’ device.
Let’s compare this to what they would have experienced had they deployed a Sun Ray based desktop infrastructure.

  • Same people that deploy the furniture can plugin the Sun Rays, no local work required.
  • No patching, device driver or any other maintenance required on desktop devices.
  • Controllers run reliably.
  • New versions of Terminal Services client are easily and instantly deployed to controllers.
  • Firmware upgrades, if required at all, are transparently deployed to desktop devices, with no need for sys admins’ involvement.
  • 5 years in, the only difference to the desktop units ordered for new employees is better resolution. No fussing with end-of-lifed units, managing multiple sets of desktop devices, warranties and so on.
  • Customer decides to use Citrix – desktop devices remain the same, Citrix client deployed on controllers, users use Citrix.

I think this real customer story explains well why WinTerms are a definitely not the ‘cheap and easy solution’ they first appear to be. We’ll be conducting a desktop evaluation for them to see if Sun Ray fits their needs. I think it will, very cost-effectively.

4 Responses to “Windows Terminals – one customer’s trials”

  1. William R. Walling Says:

    Chris,
    You are absolutely correct!
    Unfortunately, I have lost SMB clientele to MS-DELL SFF ware aimed at ‘duplicating’ SUN Sun Ray product.
    A review of novel Sun Ray ‘session’ concepts caused me to identify a ‘sales’ problem with this technology.
    If a complete ‘new’ SUN (high throughput) LAN environment is sold, the customer should not observe and/or complain about ‘session’ latency.
    However, if a deployment must exist within an existing LAN environment, a wise competitor can demonstrate the inherent limitations of SUN ‘session’ technology.
    Chris, I specifically created the ‘DCD’ (appliance) to remedy ‘session’ issues, permit operations with ALL digital data within ANY environment and SELL for SUN!
    P.S.: Unrelated to IT, look for a Wisconsin, U.S.A. company to introduce ‘green’ ware soon. ‘Polishing’ a design can work!

  2. ThinGuy Says:

    Starting to think that WRW is a comment spammer trying to push a vaporware design.

  3. William R. Walling Says:

    Thin Guy,
    Talk to Santa Clara or Menlo Park about ‘vaporware’. I have contacted upper management personnel at SUN, check with them. You will appreciate this ware, NO JOKE!

  4. Aaron Browne Says:

    Sounds all to familiar to me. Working for a company that replaced their Sun desktop with WinTerms, only to see these WinTerms upgraded or replaced by PCs because the graphics performance is terrible. On top of that, a poor roaming session model and upgrading/patching Win CE. Look at it this way, many people would be out of a job if not for Windows, or maybe doing something productive. Sun Rays are hard to ignore but somehow people find a way.

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