Sun office gets thin with desktop-free diet

The company bids farewell to local servers in its London office, its latest effort to get its thin-client pitch across to a largely unreceptive world.

Andrew Donoghue Special to CNET News.com
3 min read
Sun Microsystems has decided to take the thin-client model to its logical extreme and move an entire U.K. branch office to thin clients running over a wide area network.

Speaking to ZDNet UK on Thursday, Sun's U.K. managing director, Leslie Stretch, revealed plans to replace the several hundred thin clients running off local servers in the company's City office, near London Bridge, with thin clients running over a WAN by the end of this year.

"In this office by the end of this year we will have no computers at all. Of the 200 to 300 seats we have here at the moment, we have no desktops but we do have local servers. By the end of 2004 there will be no physical servers in the office at all, just lines of switches. We have an experimental line in here at the moment for something we call the 'Wan Ray,'" he said.

The Wan Ray is an extension of Sun's Sun Ray concept--thin clients activated by a Java smart card that allows a user to move from machine to machine midsession without having to reboot. The Wan Ray will work in a similar way but over a WAN and does away with the need to have local servers.

"I can pull up my desktop--it can be in Scotland, it can be in Fleet (Sun's British headquarters)--and instead of going through a local server it just goes through the switch room. It's a kind of counterintuitive message--don't buy computers--but it's a huge cost saving for us, "said Stretch.

Thin clients, which typically are little more than a monitor and keyboard, resemble computers on the surface, but unlike a typical Windows desktop PC, they have no software on a local hard drive--and probably have no such drive in the first place. Applications reside instead on a server located elsewhere.

Despite being in the financial doldrums of late, this month Sun reported a narrower than-expected second-quarter loss of around $125 million, a big improvement from the year-earlier period.

From a U.K. perspective, Stretch put the revenue improvement down to a number of large private sector deals, including Sun's inclusion in a consortium headed by BT Group to provide the "data spine" to support national electronic patient records. The value of this project to Sun is believed to be around $250 million.

"On the patient care records system--most of our December production capacity in the U.K. was probably taken up with the computers for that. It's huge for us, it's our largest ever contract in the U.K.," said Stretch.

A win for Java
He also revealed that the company received an order for around 5,000 seats of its Java Desktop from a British public sector customer--the name of which should be announced in the next few weeks.

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"We received that purchase order (Monday), and the rollout has started already," he said.

Sun also revealed that the Office of Government Commerce is carrying out a series of workshops in its London City office around its evaluation of Java Enterprise System--following the framework that was announced just before Christmas.

"We have been investing in the public sector for years now, but it's only in the last six months that has turned into contracts. So from a revenue perspective the public sector is the future," said Stretch.

Sun has been pushing the thin-client message for around 10 years, but on the whole it has failed to gel with users. But the company is hoping that the momentum behind its Java Desktop, combined with the numerous security scares around Windows, could help tip the balance away from Microsoft and fat clients.

Research from IDC published last year showed that interest in the thin-client model is increasing--although Sun failed to make it onto IDC's list of top 10 vendors in the area, which included Wyse, Hewlett-Packard/Compaq and Neoware. According to IDC, nearly 440,000 thin-client systems were shipped in 2002 in Western Europe, an increase of 23 percent over 2001.

"Thin-client architectures, including dedicated and PC hardware, are a viable solution for many business problems, including security, system management concerns and application deployment. We see increased interest in this market and expect growth to continue," said Chris Ingle, group consultant for IDC's EMEA Systems Group.

Andrew Donoghue of ZDNet UK reported from London.