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President's Letter

by Andrew Welch


[Andrew on Harley] Despite all of the tempting cheap shots and cliches the latest turmoil at Apple allows for, I'll resist the temptation (for now at least). What interests me is the idea of a Network Computer (NC for short).

Veterans of the computer industry will note that NC's have been around for years in various shapes and sizes: TTY terminals, X-terminals, among many others. In fact the one computer course I had to take in college, Intro to Computers, was in a lab full of Sun's which net-booted off of a central server. They were slow. The course sucked. I got an A.

What exactly is an NC? Exact definitions vary, but the core idea is this: a cheap, stateless, interchangeable computer that has no persistent local storage. It boots over the network, off of a centralized server. Some models may have a hard drive, but it is only used for caching information (similar to the way Netscape caches web pages on your Mac).

Why would anyone be interested in such a gadget? Reduced initial costs (the units themselves are cheaper than a full-blown computers), interchangeability (if one NC dies, just swap it with another one; nothing important is saved on it), and more importantly, reduced maintenance costs.

Let's say you work in the MIS department at a small company; the new version of Microsoft Word arrives (no, you don't use it for kindling -- down in front!), and you need to update everyone's machines to run the new software. With a NC, you install it once on the server, and you're done.

Certainly this is done today, and has been done for many years: clients run their applications off of a server, and the MIS dude or dudette maintains the applications. However this is using expensive, stand-alone computers which are prone to configuration problems and disarray. With an NC, you pay much less for each client. You also don't have to worry about people screwing up their computers in one way or another; there is no "System Folder" on the NC that users can possibly screw up.

Yes, it all sounds a bit authoritarian, but in lab situations, for instance, these kinds of practices have long been in effect. The machines are protected with security software, so you can't install anything custom or mess up the existing installation (in theory); you run what is provided for you.

A real-world example is useful here, let's look at Ambrosia. Gayle handles our finances, and typically runs 4 programs: FileMaker Pro for database access, eMailer for eMail, MYOB for our finances, and ClarisWorks for writing letters. Just about any computer has the horsepower to run the applications she needs, and everything she accesses is stored on one of our central servers (is this sounding familiar?).

Applications are stored on her hard drive (simply because they run faster that way), but there isn't much more than that saved locally. In fact, she has a folder on our server (as everyone here does) that she saves most of her documents to, because it gets backed up nightly. She's a prime candidate for a NC.

Applications (and anything else you happen to currently be working on) would be cached on the NC's local memory/hard drive, and all of her work would be saved on the server. If her machine died (we occasionally have water leaks and escaped parrots here), we could simply plug in another machine, and her environment would be exactly as it was on the since-deceased machine.

Think of NC's a virtual computers; your desktop, files, etc. don't exist on the machine you're using, they are all saved on the server. When you fire up your machine in the morning, your virtual computer comes speeding down the network wire into your NC, and is cached there so that you don't have to hit the network every time you try to do anything.

Granted, NC's aren't a perfect solution for every situation; I certainly wouldn't want one at home. However if there was a quality, shrink wrapped solution available today, I would eagerly look into it when it came time for us to upgrade our machines.

There are a number of places where NC's would complement workstation/desktop computer installations: corporate departments, school computer labs, Internet cafes, kiosks, etc, etc. It certainly could be interesting....

[Andrew's Signature]

Andrew Welch
Thaumaturgist
Ambrosia Software, Inc.


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