The Riverbed Blog (testing)

A blog in search of a tagline

WAN Optimization and Thin Clients

Posted by riverbedtest on August 24, 2009

"The era of the PC is almost over, and the era of the [thin client] is about to begin…"

Larry Ellison, March 8, 1996, in a speech to the Commonwealth Club of California

Well, it hasn't happened yet.  But even now, more than 13 years after Larry Ellison and Scott McNealy made their bold declarations about the future of network computing, there are still many who continue to see thin clients as the next major paradigm shift in computing.  Note that I'm not talking about just desktop virtualization as a tool–I'm refering to the utopia that they envision where all applications are centrally-hosted.  Perhaps it can still happen in the future, but we have learned quite a few things from more than a decade of attempts at applying thin-client principles to real-life computing requirements.  More likely than not, the future will involve at least some involvement from full thick-client PC's, if not continued dominance of the prevailing client-server computing model.

In a previous blog, I described how Riverbed is able to optimize the transfer of network traffic from thin client computing platforms.  But on the other hand, the advancement of WAN optimization technologies over the past few years now affords new break-through solutions for remote computing, where the thin client approach was previously believed to be the only viable option.  Could it be that maturation of WAN optimization technologies will not only preserve the trusty client-server computing model, but also threaten the bottom line of certain vendors such as Citrix who continue to yearn for that thin client utopia?

Both WAN optimization and thin client computing have common goals of centralizing and consolidating servers into the main data center, but that is about where their comonality ends.  Though WAN optimization is a more recently-available technology, thin client computing approaches have been explored and investigated for more than a decade.  And one of its most glaring disappointments has been the high cost.  Originally, thin client technology was supposed to be cheap.  That was one of the original attractions–deploy low-cost hardware at the branch offices.  But as we all know now, those Citrix software licensing fees are very expensive and a huge cost burden to many IT departments.

After 5 years at Riverbed, I have become somewhat jaded by the impressive reports of fast LAN-like performance for CIFS, Exchange, NFS, HTTP/SSL, etc.  All Riverbed customers experience these benefits, and I am not the least bit surprised by these reports.  But on a recent trip to Asia, I ran into multiple customers who are now telling me that they are also removing Citrix XenApp licenses from their branch offices that receive Steelhead appliances.  In fact, one Riverbed customer is removing Citrix XenApp for one critical application used by hundreds of users at 80 remote sites.  They expect to save $millions over the lifetime of that application, from not having to pay Citrix for annual recurring licensing costs that seem to rise faster than the rate of inflation.

While in the past I've heard of a few Riverbed customers removing Citrix licenses before, I am now starting to see it happen with greater recurring frequency, on a much grander scale.  It seems that WAN optimization has now matured enough as a technology that it can now be trusted for deep-impacting IT initiatives.  At Riverbed, we especially look forward to this new and interesting competitive frontier.

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