Bringing shared computing to the enterprise

NComputing has made a mark in education and emerging markets by enabling multiple people to share a single PC or server. It's now set its sights on U.S. businesses.

A shop floor worker at Michigan-based BLD Systems uses an NComputing virtual desktop with a USB-based barcode scanner to access manufacturing applications streamed from a hosted desktop. BLD deploys 40 NComputing virtual desktops, connected by Ethernet over a wireless bridge using a single low-end server. NComputing

SAN FRANCISCO--After years of pitching the developing world and educational institutions on the notion of shared PCs, NComputing is ready to make a more serious push to U.S. businesses.

The company's technology lets a single PC or server provide a desktop computing experience to 10 or more individual thin-client terminals, each hooked up to their own keyboard and mouse and an inexpensive piece of hardware from NComputing, about the size of a home router. By being able to significantly cut costs, the company has racked up a number of large deals in recent years, becoming one of the leading providers of thin clients.

"The key is the technology works," says Stephen Dukker, the former eMachines CEO who runs NComputing. "It's ready for prime time."

Although the company has become known for its work with schools overseas, Dukker said it is a misnomer to think of NComputing as a company focused on education. It was just a natural place to start given the high focus on costs and the existence of relatively more lenient software licensing rules that make it easier to set up such installations.

The company won't say what its revenue is, but the company says that it is selling more than a million shared computing "seats" each year and now has about 200 employees, up from around 160 a year ago.

As NComputing goes after the business market--the most lucrative segment for the PC and software industries--things will undoubtedly get a little thornier. In some cases, businesses can just pay a per-user fee for the software they need and still benefit from the lower hardware costs.

Beyond that, there are social barriers that are likely to slow business adoption. First of all, companies don't want to send the message--and workers don't want to get the message--that they aren't valuable enough to have their own PC. Second of all, companies like solutions that can easily be managed with their existing tools. Finally, thin computing has long been touted, but has also historically not been able to deliver the goods.

"Its one of those things that have been tried many times and failed many times," said Redmonk analyst Michael Cote. "The most encouraging thing (now) is everything is faster."

Even a few years ago, Cote said, PCs didn't have enough spare capacity to handle multiple loads for the average business worker. While that may still be true for those doing video editing and other high-demand tasks, your average PC these days can handle multiple sessions of Web browsing, e-mail reading, and note taking.

Dukker insists that, while challenging, the enterprise is a nut his company is ready to crack.

"We have large enterprise attachment worldwide," Dukker said. "You'll be hearing more about this."

While sales to businesses now total 35 percent of the company's business, the big shift is that 15 of those percentage points are now sales in developed countries such as the United States.

In India, NComputing has a huge installation with India's Employee State Insurance Corporation (ESIC), an organization that runs both hospitals and health insurance in that country.

Here in the U.S., NComputing has racked up a few early business customers including Big O Tires, Michigan-based BLD Systems, and paper giant Weyerhauser, which is using NComputing in seven of its mills.

With Big O Tires, the company has about 9,000 NComputing workstations in about 600 franchised locations across the country. Each store has 10 to 30 workstations running off two desktop-size computers. Some key business apps run remotely from the company's data center, while things like Office and Web browsing are handled locally from the shared PCs.

Dukker said that, from its inception, NComputing has had its eye on the business market, but said it wanted to start with the easier sell. "It always takes three to four years for a disruptor like us to get credibility," he said.

 

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