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Wyse beefs up Linux-based network machine

Wyse Technology puts Linux at the heart of its newest thin-client product, bumping Java aside as the best way to power the low-cost networked machines.

Wyse Technology has put Linux at the heart of its newest "thin-client" product, bumping Java aside as the best way to power the low-cost networked machines.

The latest terminal from Wyse, the poetically named 5355SE, is the company's new attempt to jump-start the thin-client concept, which promises to reduce corporate computing costs by centralizing computing functions. Under the thin-client architecture, applications and data are stored centrally on massive servers, which reduces operating costs. The desktop units also cut costs by not needing hard drives or fast processors. Still, demand has not taken off with corporate customers, as makers of network computers learned.

Wyse has opted for the Linux operating system because it's inexpensive, customizable, relatively crash-proof, and network-savvy, said Jeff McNaught, vice president of marketing at the company. And it's not the only company to make that choice. Graphon also bases its thin-client software on Linux.

Change in plans
Previously, Wyse developed a machine based on the Java operating system and took it to a test market, during which Wyse learned "that this product was not meeting the needs of their customers," said a spokesman for the company. Wyse took the machine back to the drawing board, introduced its first Linux-based Network Terminal product last fall, and today introduced a higher-powered, multimedia-capable thin client.

The choice is ironic for Sun Microsystems, a company that long has advocated the thin-client approach, in which relatively unsophisticated terminals connect to powerful back-end servers where a company's software actually ran. Sun saw Java-based thin clients as the way to bypass rival Microsoft's Windows software so common on desktops, but so far the company has been more successful selling back-end servers than clients.

When switched on, Wyse's Linux-based machines show a screen that looks similar to Windows 95, complete with a start button and task bar.

Wyse, which has sold simpler terminals than its current products for more than a decade, doesn't see thin clients replacing desktop PCs, but it does see a place for them in companies that need terminals that are inexpensive to buy, install, and maintain; that are centrally controlled; that have a life span of five to eight years; and that run a version of Netscape's Navigator browser and Freemail software.

Thin clients have been a solution in search of a problem, according to some observers--particularly with the advent of ultra-cheap PCs. Shipments of such devices have lagged far behind that of regular PCs. However, Wyse argues that thin clients will appeal to companies that don't relish the prospect of maintaining those machines with software and hardware upgrades.

Few moving parts
As with its predecessors, the 5355SE has no hard disk, floppy disk, or CD-ROM drive. In fact, it has very few moving parts-the "on" button and the keyboard, for instance--a move that gives the computers durability and a longer lifetime. The computer uses a heat-driven water cooling system instead of a fan to cool the National Semiconductor Cyrix MediaGX chip running at 200 MHz. With no fan, the computer case is sealed so no dust can get in.

The back of the diminutive box is packed with ports, including Universal Serial Bus, PC Card, and serial ports, allowing people to plug in everything from bar code scanners to digital cameras for teleconferencing.

The 5355SE can connect to programs running on a variety of back-end systems, including Citrix's software for sharing access to Windows programs, Santa Cruz Operation's Tarantella, Unix programs using the X Windows system, and any number of traditional character-based programs that still are in widespread use, McNaught said.

Improved boot-up process
One problem Wyse found with the network-computer concept espoused by Sun is the necessity of using the network to boot up the client machine. Even fast company networks just can't stand the strain of a lot of network computers downloading megabytes of software, and the concept is totally unworkable in areas where people must use slower connections such as dial-up access over phone lines, McNaught said.

As a result, Wyse decided to make its network terminal able to boot up even without a network. To do this, they managed to fit the Linux operating system, its graphical user interface, the Web browser, and the email software all in 8.5 megabytes of flash memory, McNaught said.

The product uses a version of Linux based on the Slackware version of the Unix-like operating system, the company said.

The new network terminal has a list price of $839 but will cost less than $600 in high volumes, McNaught said, emphasizing that the real cost savings come with lower installation and management costs.

Wyse also sells a line of thin clients based on Microsoft's Windows CE operating system, but those are able to connect only to Windows servers, McNaught said.