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Software for small-business NCs unveiled

Citrix Systems unveils a version of its software for small businesses and also signs a licensing deal with Hewlett-Packard.

Capitalizing on the growing momentum of "thin client" computing, network software vendor Citrix Systems (CTXS) released a version of its software for small businesses and signed a licensing deal with Hewlett-Packard.

The two announcements come on the eve of Comdex, where a number of vendors are expected to make announcements regarding their plans for Windows-Based Terminals (WBTs), Network Computers (NCs), and other "thin desktop/fat server" software architectures.

Thin-client systems, which take computing functions off the desktop and put them on servers, have thus far failed to sell according to expectation. Only 500,000 NCs shipped this year, according to Eileen O'Brien, director of Network Computer products at International Data Corporation.

"It's been a slower sales cycle than I anticipated or the vendors anticipated," O'Brien said. "But there's a number of very large pilots [pilot projects] going on."

WinFrame WorkGroups, released today, is a five-user version of Citrix's flagship WinFrame software. Under WinFrame, a back-end server hosts all of a network's applications and performs all of the logic functions. The desktop client, on the other hand, acts primarily as a window to the server. The client gives a user access to applications and transmits strokes and mouse clicks, but the real work gets done on the server.

The architecture saves costs because applications can be centrally managed and works with existing desktops, according to David Weiss, director of product management for Citrix. Accordingly, franchise operations are a target audience because the outposts sharing the network are typically in different locations. Without some sort of central management, an IT manager would have to visit each location to upgrade applications.

WinFrame WorkGroups allows a company to create a five-terminal network. It comes with a suggested retail price of $2,495.

Separately, Citrix has also released a version of its Load Balancing and Secure ICA option pack, which allows users to balance traffic across a nest of servers, for $1,495 per server.

Under the Citrix-HP deal, HP has secured the rights to bundle the Windows-, DOS-, and Java-based Citrix client software into HP hardware. The deal is significant, said O'Brien, because HP is the last major maker of Windows-centric NCs to adopt Citrix clients.

Although NCs sales have not matched expectations, O'Brien said that it appears current circumstances favor growth. Having licensed Citrix technology, Microsoft and Citrix have come to terms on how WinFrame will interoperate with Windows NT and Microsoft's upcoming Hydra server software.

Hydra mirrors what Citrix technology does in many respects. The project, due in beta version at Comdex, will add Windows Terminal support to Windows NT Server 4.0 and future versions.

Now, it appears that the contest for market share will come down to competition between the Windows-Based Terminals and the Java-based NC. The Windows Terminals will essentially be low-powered computing devices made by HP, IBM, and others designed to run on a framework that encompasses technologies from both Microsoft and Citrix. While these machines are capable of running Java applications, the network will depend upon NT, O'Brien said.

Java-based NCs, on the other hand, will be able to connect to a variety of platforms. However, these devices need the Java Virtual Machine to work. And Java, which is only yet emerging, still makes corporate customers skittish.

"Java could be the best, but it is an unknown," Ahmad Gramian, principal at CorpInfo Systems, a Los Angeles Integrator, told CNET recently. "Typically, customers are pragmatists. They like to follow."