Taking a cue from yesterday's mainframe and minicomputer makers, AST Computer today launched a PC server that lets up to 16 users run centralized applications without requiring a separate processor at each user's desk.
AST's Centralan can power so-called thin client systems, which include monitors, keyboards, and mice, but have no processors of their own. The AST server includes a specialized multiuser operating system but can run regular Windows applications.
Just like previous time-sharing systems where users "rented" processing time on mini-computers or mainframes, Centralan supports remote clients and allocates system memory on a first-come, first-served basis. The system, which includes a 166-MHz Pentium processor, 32MB of memory, a multi-VGA adapter, 2GB of hard disk, CD-ROM drive, and an internal modem, provides performance roughly equivalent to a 75-MHz Pentium for each connected user, the company said.
Centralan supports thin-client systems, standard monitors and keyboards connected through junction boxes, as well as users connected remotely via a dial-up connection. A four-user system costs roughly $5,700, and additional users cost less than $500 each.
Thin-client systems have come back into vogue as a cost-effective way to support users in small businesses or departments of larger companies that spend most of their time using network resources, including the Internet, but do not need to store documents on a local hard disk.
While the systems are promised to save companies money by lowering support costs and upgrades because information systems managers only have to maintain one centralized system, critics argue that the performance of shared-memory systems is subpar and that any cost savings are negligible in the face of plummeting PC prices.