Thin client? What thin client?

I just spent five minutes waiting for my laptop to boot up. It’s a fairly standard spec, running the dog’s breakfast that is Vista, but still, it shouldn’t take that long. In a world of cloud computing, could we be looking ahead to instant start-up as clients get thinner? I doubt it.

I’ve documented my history with computing on this blog before, but very briefly you go ZX81, ZX Spectrum, IBM PC running DOS, GEM (a precursor to Windows), Windows, self-built PC, and now I’m the proud owner of four networked machines that all do their own thing in their own inimitable way (sorry about talking tech with long words but I’ve just been listening to the Fry Chronicles and marveling at how Stephen Fry reacted to tech in the same way I did).

In one way it’s a history of progression, from a 1KB system that didn’t have enough memory to fill the screen with characters, to being able to store all my DVDs, uncompressed, on one hard drive.

But in another, it’s not.

The ZX81 and Spectrum were so-called ‘clean machines’, that is, you just turned them on and they booted up instantly because the operating system was built into the hardware. The early DOS-based machines were similarly quick to start up, not as immediate but pretty fast. Certainly not five minutes. And, for the record, I cannot remember one instance in which a DOS-based machine crashed. Not one.

Since then, machines seem to take longer and longer and longer to start up. And despite the laptop I’m typing at right now being several orders of magnitude more powerful than the PC I built several years ago, it doesn’t strike me as much faster. It does more things, and it’s easier to use, but it’s not really faster. My netbook, if anything, is quite a lot slower.

An anecdote: I used to work for a company that delivered financial information to the City via a web browser. It was very forward-looking stuff (too forward-looking perhaps – it never made it). I remember trying to nail down the specs for running the system and in the end we just decided ‘if it can run Windows, it can run us’. This was quite neat, but still we got enquiries from people running machines that were only a year or so old that couldn’t handle it, particularly if the City was feeling quite bullish.

I remember saying to the tech manager, with heavy irony, “So they don’t have enough capacity to run our thin-client system then?” My how we laughed.

So why, if we’re putting more onto the cloud, are we still suffering? Even the web technologies themselves – Antivirus, Flash, firewall, Java, javascript, Silverlight, the list goes on – are demanding more of our local processing power. That’s without even thinking about the supposedly processor-intensive stuff such as multimedia.

Here’s what I want: a completely online operating system. Something so server-based that all I have to do is switch my machine on, and everything runs online. The only thing the local machine has to look after is the web connection, maybe some security, and that’s it. I know there are versions of this – my Samsung netbook came with one that didn’t work so I uninstalled it – but I cannot name any.

But I doubt that’s going to happen. Chip designers and manufacturers will, out of necessity, produce faster and more capacious chips because they’re in a competitive market. In response, and for the same reason, software designers will use that computing power to do more. Your local machines will continue to gain weight.

So I’d really love not to have to wait for my machines to boot up, or to have to update every sodding piece of software on a daily basis. Instead, I’d like to transfer all the computing online, because it’s a much neater way to do it. I want a dumb but trim terminal, not a clever, overweight machine. I want something more akin to my clever little black cat rather than my stupid fat one.

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4 thoughts on “Thin client? What thin client?

  1. I agree. My (XP) netbook has fast become clogged and hatefully slow to boot.

    Isn’t this Google’s Chrome OS that you’re craving? That’s still on its way for netbooks last I heard… Allso, your quick boot fix may be met by that other emerging OS – the apps OS of Android and Apple’s iOS for iphones and iPads.

  2. If you want fast booting, use GNU/Linux.

    In my lab, I keep a server running. It has all the files needed for login cached in RAM. When a user fires up a PC he can get a usable desktop in 30s even on 8 year old PCs. The server does the work. The PC boots up and connects to the server. Once the login screen is present it takes 5s to login. To start OpenOffice.org takes 5s, too. My server is 6 years old and has only 1gB of RAM. 20 students can use it simultaneously and CPU usage runs around 20%. I use Debian Squeeze (to be released around Christmas). It used parallel booting to speed things up. There are special distros for fast booting like http://www.splashtop.com/videos.php

  3. Fair enough but I’m totally Windows. I know what you’re saying – Linux is great, I should try it, it’s fast, lean, secure etc – but I totally work in a Windows environment whether at home or at work. I really do have no compunction to find out about Linux, even as a test (which is unusual for me because my study is littered with cables, connectors, adapters and bit of old PC).

    And it’s not just the booting up aspect – it’s the bloatware. The fact that we need faster machines in an age of cloud computing which seems to me a complete contradiction. Again, maybe Linux is better in this regard but again, not going there.

    But if someone somewhere develops a fully online OS that matches cloud computing, and that OS is transferrable (ie I can work on it at home equally as well as at a client’s office) then I’d go for it like a shot.

    Nice idea though.

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