Enterprise Unix Roundup Mandrake Says Thin Is In
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For a while now, we've been getting the same mail from a collection of vendors. While they don't say exactly the same thing, the underlying message is nearly always the same: Thin is in!
Thin-client computing, that is.
For reasons we've never sat down to figure out, thin clients ring the same bells with us as "Internet appliances." We can make a case for their usefulness; we can imagine who would use them; we can even picture happy users gathered around thin clients as they cheerfully harness the raw power of an application server somewhere else to do all their computing. We also know that this has been the year of the thin client for an awfully long time.
Downturns are fine times for folks to look around and decide it's a good time to consider ways in which the desktop machine formerly known as "snappy" can have some more life squeezed out of it. We've noticed some government deployments where spending is even more constrained, but we've also watched desktop prices come down for computing power that's pretty much redundant for the average corporate desktop user.
So what's this got to do with Enterprise Unix?
One answer is that many Linux strategists believe thin-client computing to be a potential stronghold for Linux. They point to the core strengths its Unix heritage brings to the table a network-centric graphical interface, and a solid and well-established multi-user model as technical advantages. They also point to the particular economic benefits Linux can offer because it is, or at least can be, free of charge.
So a certain peanut-butter-n-chocolate confluence is assumed in the combination of a network friendly operating system and an application base already designed to work over a network interface, ready to deal with multiple users, armed with a real security model, and free of potentially crippling licensing fees that eradicate much of the benefit of going thin in the first place.
It's precisely this confluence Mandrake was likely envisioning when it concocted its "Nexedi rentalinux Desktop Linux Server" (emphasis Mandrake's), which is a thin-client server setup organizations can rent on a monthly basis to receive:
- One Sumicom S620 compact server (with a Pentium IV processor, 800 MHz front side bus, and 1024 MB of DDR RAM)
- Server replacement within five days by UPS in cases of hardware failure (24 hour option available for an extra fee)
- Custom configuration/setup based on the nature of the thin clients (since they can be Macs or Windows/Linux-based PCs)
- Server replacement every two years
- Annual server "checkup"
- Server setup and use support
According to Mandrake, each server can support 10 clients. The monthly rental fee is 95 EUR (about $115), plus a 30 EUR ($36) delivery fee and a setup fee that varies based on the customer's payment schedule. It ranges from free for a fully paid-up year, up to 300 EUR ($362) for a quarterly rental and 500 EUR ($604) for a monthly rental.
Paying upfront is also an option and offers some cost savings: Prepaid, a full year of Desktop Linux Server will run a company 1,140 EUR ($1,378), and a quarter will run 870 EUR ($1,051).
On a technical level, the odd part of this offering is that it's not using X11, which is where the "network-centric graphical interface" advantage we ticked off as a Unix strength comes in. Instead, it's using TightVNC, a remote desktop package more akin to PC Anywhere or similar products. TightVNC, in turn, is based on Virtual Network Computing (VNC), an application formerly developed by AT&T. VNC (and its derivatives) enjoy some popularity among computing enthusiasts because it's an easy way to get remote control of a computer without dealing with the vagaries of X11. It also tends, in our experience, to be a little slower than X11 when bandwidth is tight, although TightVNC has worked to cut down some of the lagginess.
When compared to the full Java Enterprise System software stack from Sun currently priced at around $150 per user per year (Java Desktop System included), Mandrake's offering is less expensive in terms of per-user cost (about $12 for 10 users per rentalinux server). So the real value proposition comes into play if the enterprise considering its options has a fleet of desktop hardware so decrepit that running Linux stand-alone is inconceivable. That, however, makes for some fairly troubled hardware considering Sun is offering a Pentium III running at 600 MHz or faster, 4 GB of hard drive space, and at least 256 MB RAM as its recommended configuration for a JDS install. It also makes for a pretty narrow window for this to be a good deal.
The least compelling part of rentalinux is Mandrake's leisurely five-day turnaround if the server goes down. For an unspecified fee, the turnaround drops to 24 hours. During that time, users are dead in the water because the only computer really doing anything is on its way to the repair depot.
In sum, we're fairly sure this is not an offering that will set the world on fire: It depends on a very narrow class of customers with desperately decrepit computing hardware for it to make more sense than a simple stand-alone desktop play from the likes of Sun. It's less-expensive than the Red Hat Desktop (covered last month), which costs about $250 per user, but it provides the advantages of VMware and the Citrix ICA client for users dependent on Windows applications.
While Mandrake's move is an interesting play, we're guessing "thin is in!" is going to continue to ring a little hollow.
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