Monday, August 01, 2005

The Return of the Thin Client

(Via Zoo Station) It looks like a number of start-ups in India are looking at building a sub-$100 PC, targeted at making a computer accessible to the masses. Prominent among these is Novatium, a thin client running Linux, built on a DSP with flash memory substituting for DRAM, and with no hard drive. The idea is that the client will, for the most part, act as a dumb terminal with all the heavy lifting being done at back-end servers. The target price is about $100 -- if you can lay your hands on a used monitor for about $25.

While I must admit that the idea does have some potential deployment advantages -- ease of maintenance and potentially cheaper software being the most prominent among them -- I can't help thinking that the whole project is rather misguided and doomed to fail. After all, $225 will buy you a full-fledged PC in India today -- complete with a 1GHz Via processor, 40GB hard disk, a CD-ROM drive and a decent new monitor!

If the aim is to take computing to villages, wouldn't we be much better off setting up cheap community PCs time-shared across the populace, instead of getting everyone a thin client? It's not like anybody require a machine to themselves all the time, especially if the primary intent is to provide people access to information on the internet. Not to mention the fact that even thin clients requires fancy infrastructure -- both a back-end and networking -- and we all know how hard it is to get any kind of infrastructure working reliably in India. True, it may be far trickier to divide the cost of community PCs across the populace than to simply sell thin clients to each interested family, but I wouldn't think the problem is insurmountable given the cost savings that ought to result from time sharing, not to mention the savings from using commodity software on commodity hardware, instead of having to rely on some complicated, specialized Linux kernel running on a DSP.

If, on the other hand, the goal of thin clients was to target cottage industries that couldn't afford a PC, I'd think it's a non-starter. Who wants their business data to be stored on a shared computer for any hacker (or the government) to get hold of?

Perhaps the aim is to sell a full client-server solution to small businesses as an alternative to using PCs. But something tells me we've been down that path before. Isn't this the same as Sun's thin-client disaster?


Blogger NamelessNerd said...

Hey Prasanna,
I came across this post after I googled you looking for some research paper. I think you might be missing the point here when you say you can get cheaper pc's. The deal is not on cost alone. The deal is in eliminating virus and hacker attacks, which escalate maintainance costs. It will be good for remote places, where it is not always possible to get tech support. just felt like "yapping" a bit on your post.. refutations are defly welcome.
email me at namelessnerd/gmail/com

8/03/2005 7:56 PM  
Blogger Prasanna said...

Did I mention that the HCL PC runs Linux? :-)

8/03/2005 11:34 PM  
Anonymous SP said...

Even though some fancy kernel running on a DSP with no hard disk seems complicated, think these are not merely for internet access and cannot be time shared. The issue of data security on the server and the reliability of the network seems to be the next phase of the problem.

8/06/2005 7:28 PM  

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