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Firm bets the time's finally right to chuck desktops

Better bandwidth, rising maintenance costs will prompt companies to consider thin clients managed by third parties, Savvis says.

As desktop computers continue to create headaches for IT managers and companies become more open to outsourced computing alternatives, virtualization specialist Savvis is betting that a new thin client service will find favor among business customers.

Launched Wednesday, the "desktop utility computing service" is aimed at helping companies rein in overhead costs related to managing issues such as PC security, availability and maintenance. The offering promises to replace traditional desktops with so-called thin client devices made by Sun Microsystems and outsource management of the computers to Savvis, which will manage device administration and oversee operation of the servers on which companies run their desktop business applications.

For a variable flat rate per user, Savvis is offering to swap desktop PCs for Sun's Sun Ray thin client devices and provide access to programs and file storage maintained in its centralized server operations. The service also utilizes Sun's Tarantella desktop software to support Microsoft's Windows applications and Sun's own StarOffice productivity tools.

The offering will initially be available in Europe, with plans for a U.S. rollout later this year. Company executives said customers are increasingly willing to consider phasing out desktops in favor of thin client technology. Though using thin clients and outsourcing desktop administration are hardly new ideas, Savvis executives said customers are becoming more willing to entertain alternatives to traditional PC infrastructure.

"In the last year, outsourcing the desktop is something that's become increasingly easy to consider, as the bandwidth is there to solve performance issues, and frustration over towering PC maintenance costs has mounted," said Rob McCormick, chief executive at Savvis. "IT departments are moving toward a new method of getting their infrastructure, where the elements remain the same, but instead of buying assets, companies rent the infrastructure as a service. Virtualization is the technology that will allow service providers to deliver that effectively."

McCormick said some people still have negative perceptions about thin client technology and its ability to provide the same level of performance as desktop computers, but he believes that an increasing number of companies are ready to embrace the technology.

"Customers have seen this model before and it wasn't ready for them. Thin client was weak in the mid-'90s; there weren't enough applications and the devices were too slow," McCormick said. "But with more available bandwidth, and improved processing in thin clients, the story is really different today, and many IT people understand that."

Another factor that has changed companies' perceptions of working with outsourced thin client technology is the increasing demand for adherence to financial regulations such as the U.S. government's Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002. By passing more responsibility for managing required data storage on to a service provider, companies can reduce pressure to focus on compliance themselves, he said.

Savvis said that it currently has several companies testing the thin client offering and that it expects to have more customers working with the system in the near future.