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Sun looks toward a new dawn in thin clients

Sun Microsystems hopes to usher in a new era in computer systems that some say could save customers money and improve efficiency.

Sun Microsystems hopes to usher in a new dawn in computer systems that some say could save customers money and improve efficiency.

Tomorrow, Sun will unveil the Sun Ray, a desktop computer unit designed to encourage companies to abandon traditional PCs in favor of cheap, simple "thin clients" that shove most of the heavy lifting to centralized server computers.

Thin clients save money and improve efficiency, say advocates, although customers have remained lukewarm about the new product. Sun's first thin client computer, the JavaStation, flopped quite publicly two years ago, hampered by dropping PC prices, numerous product delays, and slow Java performance, the programming language used by the computer.

Sun believes things will be different this time with its new thin client, code-named Corona. For one thing, with the acquisition of Star Division, Sun now has an office software suite that runs on central servers and that can be accessed by desktop users.

In another new twist, this time Sun will lease the device instead of sell it to customers. The Sun Ray appliance can be leased for $9.99 per month over five years, the company said.

Sun chief operating officer Ed Zander acknowledged the inadequacy of its first thin client server push in July, vowing that the second time around would be a big improvement.

The thin client market will get another shot in the arm tomorrow when IBM announces two new thin clients, one of which will be based on Intel chips--a first for Big Blue, sources said.

Sun's thin client is part of the company's new Hot Desk concept, which allows people to tie into applications on Sun servers or other back-end machines, including legacy mainframes or Windows NT machines. HotDesk also comes coupled with a smart card system for remote computing. By plugging a smart card into a Hot Desk-enabled machine on a network, a user's identity, work in progress, and computer desktop can essentially be transported from one machine to another.

Unlike PCs and Windows-based terminals, the Sun Ray appliance runs no application or system code locally, and requires no configuration or desktop management, Sun said.

The device is aimed at price-sensitive markets that already use Unix and the Internet, Sun said, including customer management systems like call centers and help desks.

The Hot Desk model of computing also allows IT managers to get more bang for the buck when laying out money for CPU horsepower, Sun said. This is in stark contrast to the "PC on every desktop" model where, over the course of a day, only a tiny fraction of each PC's power is being utilized while the remaining portion is idle, Sun said.

The appliances are connected to servers running the Solaris operating environment and Sun Ray enterprise server software.

For workgroups between 50 and 200 users, a Sun Ray system with an Ethernet switch, Sun Ray server software bundled with StarOffice productivity suite, 17-inch monitor, and several other features can be leased for a little less than $30 per month for a five-year term.