by Todd Datz

Server-Based Computing Increases Security for Remote Users, Lowers Costs

Nov 15, 20039 mins
MobileSmall and Medium Business

CIOs face a double-edged sword when it comes to remote access. The good: Workers enjoy the benefits of telecommuting from their homes and staying connected while on the road. The bad: Security can be compromised as data and applications live on lightly protected remote machines, help desks can get swamped, and new applications or updates can require IT staffs to download applications to hundreds or thousands of individual PCs.

One way CIOs have eased the headaches is through server-based computing (SBC). Instead of sitting on laptops or PDAs, applications reside on servers. Users can connect securely to those apps via any device, and when an application needs updating, IT staffers need only do so on the server. In addition, apps don’t need to be rewritten to work with particular devices?a nice dose of pain relief given the complex legacy environments existing in many companies.

There are potential cost benefits to SBC as well. “Some of the key ones are reduced support costs for the applications that are deployed, fewer and shorter help desk calls, and potentially a reduced number of desktop visits,” says David Friedlander, an analyst at Forrester Research.

Legacy Leader

The 800-pound gorilla in the SBC space is Citrix, which owns close to 75 percent of the virtual user interface software market, according to IDC (a sister company to CIO’s publisher). Citrix was founded in 1989 by a group of IBM developers who had worked on OS/2. Their goal was to let multiple users gain access to the operating system from multiple devices, mainly Unix servers. When the Internet started to take off in the mid-1990s, however, CIOs started deploying Citrix software to secure access for their mobile users and to provide a greater degree of application centralization.

For years Citrix has been a one-product company, milking its cash-cow MetaFrame software and its partnership with Microsoft. The backbone of the product line is the MetaFrame XP Presentation Server, which works with Windows 2000 and 2003 servers and lets workers access applications using any device, including machines running Unix, Macintosh and Linux operating systems. That’s nice for cash-strapped organizations that may not have the budgets to buy new computers?SBC software like Citrix can run on knuckle-dragging Intel 386 processors as well as the latest Pentiums. Another benefit is that it works in heterogenous environments. “The mainframe is still not dead and never will be. Client/server isn’t dead?Web-based applications haven’t killed it off. And Web services won’t destroy everything before that,” says Bob Kruger, senior vice president of product development and CTO at Citrix.

The company calls its network protocol independent computing architecture (ICA). It consumes approximately 5Kbps to 10Kbps of network bandwidth and can run on connections as slow as 14.4Kbps. The application the user sees appears as if it’s running locally, but the only thing being sent over the wire are keystrokes, mouse clicks and screen updates.

Maritz Travel, a global group and corporate travel company, has been using MetaFrame software since 1998. Mobile connectivity was the original problem: The company’s travel directors, who were on the road some 200 days a year, are in an information-intensive business?they used a proprietary, client/server app to help them get people to meet at the right place at the right time, get them to the right rooms and so on. However, it often took them four hours to download the old application over a dial-up connection, and screen-to-screen response time was sluggish. “It got to the point where we almost refused to use the application and were putting things on paper,” says Richard Spradling, CIO of Maritz.

After installing MetaFrame, application performance increased by 300 percent, calls to the help desk fell in length and number, and telecom costs dropped. The productivity of the travel directors increased as well. Spradling also began installing the software at the company’s business travel reservations centers, many of which are in corporate locations. “We’d have an application server, a database server, maybe an Exchange server, and 10 workstations at a client location,” he says, adding that in some cases he was even forced to install servers at sites with just a single user. He began implementing the MetaFrame software in the smaller offices, replacing the apps on the PCs with thin clients and doing away with the onsite servers. “We really only need a router and thin clients,” he says. So far the software has been installed in 25 offices out of 100; Spradling says his staff will roll it out to about 25 more in the next year (but won’t do it at the larger offices, which have local tech support and provide backup for business continuity reasons). “I can’t say we’ve saved money from a hardware perspective, but it’s easier to maintain, and [apps] are better performing at remote locations,” he says.

Spradling points out that his company put software through rigorous usability and performance testing to make sure that there’s nothing inherent in applications that cause them to function poorly in a Citrix environment. “We’ve had browser-based apps that work great when deployed locally, but when deployed across Citrix, we would see a deterioration in performance,” he adds, noting that things that cause a screen to change a lot?flashing dots, for example?are a problem. In those cases, his team will modify an app.

Some of Spradling’s application developers are currently piloting MetaFrame using wireless devices. The plan is for the company’s travel directors to perform their job?identify which travelers have arrived, move people from one session to another, for example?using PDAs instead of laptops.

Other Players

Microsoft and Citrix have been partners for a long time. Microsoft’s latest offering, the Terminal Server component of Windows Server 2003 (which incorporates Citrix technology), virtualizes Windows-based apps to a variety of computing devices, including those that can’t run Windows.

But while Citrix still publicly touts Microsoft as an important partner, observers say Citrix execs would be naive if they weren’t watching their backs. “You could say the two are competing, you could say they’re cooperating, you could say Microsoft is increasing what it feels is its business,” says Dan Kusnetzky, vice president of system software research at IDC. Most analysts don’t view Microsoft as a threat in heterogeneous, highly distributed environments, however. And Friedlander says, “As long as Citrix can drive growth in the market, declining market share relative to Microsoft isn’t a problem, as long as the growth is outpacing that.”

Tarantella, like Citrix, offers access to Windows, AS/400, Unix, Linux, Java as well as mainframe applications. When asked how he differentiates his product from Citrix, CEO Doug Michels notes that “Citrix is a good product, but we think it’s very centered on Windows applications. Where we win is when the customer has a heterogeneous architecture.” The company recently acquired a competitor, software developer New Moon Systems, which will help it expand its market to small and midsize businesses.

Richard Daddio, the assistant superintendent for business and technology services for the East Williston school district in Long Island, N.Y., is a typical school administrator?that is, he continually worries about providing evermore costly technology services, such as new classroom computers and multimedia software, with limited funds. At his previous district (Bellmore), he found some relief with Tarantella’s Enterprise remote access product. “I [had] 485 desktops in the district. For me to go to each desktop and update them to the latest version of Office would be very time-consuming and costly…. It’s far easier for us, and a greater cost savings, to deploy through Tarantella.” The system has also saved on hardware costs. “We can’t turn around computers every three years; some computers are 5, 6, 7 years old. With Tarantella, a 133[MHz] Pentium machine can become a brand-new Pentium machine,” he says.

The Bellmore district currently uses (or has plans to use) Tarantella to deploy Microsoft Office, a grade reporting app and other software. Students, teachers and district employees access the applications internally through a WAN and externally via an Internet connection. Daddio looked at Citrix but chose Tarantella based on price. “It was about 50 percent less for the same functionality,” he says. Daddio says that he is currently investigating Tarantella for his new district as well.

However, Tarantella is having trouble getting its message out to the masses. “It’s an excellent product, but there aren’t necessarily a large number of people that know that,” Kusnetzky says. “If it can ramp up its marketing, it has a chance [to be around] for a long time. But if it continues down the path it’s on?the path being that it’s largely an obscure company?that obscurity could kill them.”

Vendors Look for Growth

Like many in the tech sector, SBC companies have taken a hit as CIOs have stopped their once freewheeling spending habits. Revenue was lower in 2002 than 2001 for SBC software vendors as companies stopped buying new systems and looked to utilize their current assets. But slashed tech budgets haven’t been the only damper on growth in this space. Kusnetzky says that none of these vendors has been able to convince IT decision-makers that its products make sense. “[The products are] somewhat technical, and IT decision-makers are increasingly businesspeople, not technologists,” he says, adding that SBC vendors need to better lay out the business case for their software, which, he adds, is good technology.

Kusnetzky also points out that the technology?as a standalone product?currently has a window of opportunity that may close in the future. There are three reasons: First, apps are increasingly becoming Web-centric; second, those capabilities could begin to appear in application virtualization environments like BEA or WebSphere; and third, operating systems, such as Terminal Server, which is bundled into Microsoft Server, could also begin (or continue to) incorporate SBC capabilities.

Citrix has recognized the danger of continuing down its standalone product path and now offers MetaFrame Access Suite in an attempt to diversify its revenue stream. That includes Secure Access Manager, which provides secure sockets layer and transport layer security (SSL/TLS) access to Web apps without the need for a VPN; Password Manager, which allows single sign-on for apps running on Citrix; Conferencing Manager, a collaboration tool that allows people in different locations to share apps; and MetaFrame Presentation Server. Tarantella, meanwhile, hopes its acquisition of New Moon will give it a revenue boost.

For CIOs, there are solid reasons to consider SBC products. They can lower hardware, software and support costs, and provide secure access to applications. But for the vendors in this space, patience?and aggressive marketing around business value?will continue to be a virtue as they wait for that often-forecast, never-arriving uptick in tech spending.