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Sun Microsystems Inc. has renewed its efforts to get the world interested in its thin-client computing platform, Sun Ray. Earlier this year, the company released both a new hardware client (the Sun Ray 170) and server software—including a version that runs on Linux.

I have a long history with thin-client computing, dating back to my days installing SCO Unix 386-based terminals in law offices for a Wyse VAR. In general, that history has been less than pleasant—especially those episodes where some flavor of Unix (and novice Unix users) was involved.

But, based on my experience testing Sun Ray on Linux, I think I’ve finally gotten over my dread of thin clients.

I did about a month of usability testing of a Sun Fire V20 server loaded with SuSE Linux, Sun’s Java Desktop System 2, Sun Ray Server Software 3 and a small network of Sun Ray 170 clients. Based on that experience, I think it’s safe to say that Unix-based thin-client computing is finally (relatively) safe for the unwashed masses—at least in limited doses.

If you spend most of your day in a Web-based application, in a spreadsheet or word processing document, or in e-mail, then you probably won’t notice much of a difference when someone replaces your Windows PC with a Sun Ray 170—except possibly the additional room on your work surface.

I looked at Sun Ray specifically to see how well it would hold up as a Windows alternative for a small to midsized office environment. With Java Desktop System, I found most of the bases were covered, or could easily be covered with additional commercial or open-source software. And for the few tasks where Windows is still required, there’s an ICA (Independent Computing Architecture) client available to bridge users over.

Thin-client computing promoters have long promised reduced costs—cheaper desktop units, lower support costs and easier maintenance because everything’s centralized on a multiuser server. But except for very narrow use cases, the history of thin-client computing is littered with the bodies of less-than-successful projects.

With software licensing (and in the case of Windows-based thin-client solutions, even OS licensing) still linked to user headcount, acquisition costs didn’t drop that much. Performance suffered. And the user experience wasn’t close enough to working on a PC—especially when things like audio- and video-intensive applications were involved.

Thin-client solutions haven’t always been the best economic option for the solution providers, either. Software licensing costs ate away much of the potential profit margin for Windows-based thin clients, making developing solutions on them less than attractive. And when you could sell another white box instead, why bother?

On the surface, just in terms of acquisition cost, the equation hasn’t changed much. A Sun Ray 170 lists for around $1,050, though Sun does offer the Sun Ray 170 at a discount for education and research customers. You could probably find a way to get a PC with a 17-inch LCD display for that much.

Sun Ray Server Software 3 for Linux costs $99 for a single user, $1,780 for a 20-user license and $7,900 for a 100-user license; you can get a site license for $39,500. Add the cost of the server hardware, support for the server operating system (SuSE or Red Hat), and the cost of installing a 20-user network of Sun Rays isn’t that much less than installing 20 PCs and a Windows server.

So, what’s the point of going with a thin-client solution if it costs about the same? The answer in Sun Ray’s case is total cost of ownership.

Thin-client networks have shown to be a lot cheaper to support than PC-based solutions—at least in situations in which network lag doesn’t drag down user productivity, the users don’t need the mobility of laptops, and the users are willing to forgo the all-in-one functionality of a PC.

There’s also a potential upside from reduced software licensing costs.

The configuration I tested included Java Desktop System Release 2 for Linux, which is $100 per desktop per year, including maintenance—and includes the StarOffice suite of office applications, an e-mail and calendaring client compatible with Microsoft Exchange, and most of the other applications needed for daily office use. And if you’re a solution provider, you’ve got any number of open-source desktop environments that you can assemble a solution from with no licensing costs whatsoever—especially if you’re planning to provide direct support to your customers.

On the other hand, supporting JDS on Sun Ray is dirt simple. The administrative tools for adding and managing users provided in JDS are as simple and intuitive as those in a basic Windows environment—and much simpler than those for a Windows network.

Sun Ray’s sexiest feature

The sexiest feature of Sun Ray is its smart card support. The Sun Ray platform allows users to tie their session to a smart card instead of a specific workstation. That means that in a retail environment, for example, a sales clerk can look something up on one Sun Ray client, pull his or her smart card out, walk to another client and plug the smart card in, and be right back at the same screen the sales clerk left at the first machine.

That works whether you’ve specifically tied a user account to a smart card or not; even if you haven’t, when you plug a token card into the Sun Ray and log in, your log-in is tied to that card until you log out again.

The 170 is self-configuring when plugged into a network with an available Sun Ray server. It took less than 10 seconds for the clients I tested to find the server and bring up a log-in prompt; in a small office environment, there was no perceivable difference between a thin-client session and working from a PC—with the exception of an occasional block of screen real estate taking a few seconds longer to refresh than a local session would.

That could be credited to Sun’s tweaking of the client session protocol in Sun Ray Server Software 3. The protocol has been optimized for low-bandwidth connections, so that Sun Ray clients can also be preconfigured to connect to a remote server over broadband via a VPN connection.

Want audio and video? The Sun Ray 170 supports audio streamed from the server. I tested the clients on my network with a variety of applications that included audio support; the only places where the configuration failed were when JDS’ Java media player had to get involved.

The media player choked on MP3 and QuickTime files; the MP3 files actually locked up the player, and I had to use the system monitor (much like its counterpart in Windows) to kill the Java process and log out to get audio back.

There are some other wrinkles. While setting up printers on the Sun Ray 170 is possible—via the USB or serial ports—it’s not an end-user kind of thing.

It requires an administrative tool with super-user privileges and the need to map the device mount of the attached printer.

And the keyboard kit that comes standard with the 170 leaves something to be desired; I ended up swapping it for a spare USB keyboard I had handy just because the key travel and general ergonomics of the Sun keyboard drove me nuts. At least I could do that; even my Apple USB keyboard worked without protest on the 170.

But the upsides in terms of cost of ownership will probably outweigh these issues for many. With no moving parts and low power consumption, Sun claims that the 170 has a mean time between failures rating of 15 years.

So, long-term, the 170 could outlast several PCs’ (and several back-end servers’) life cycles. And more importantly, if you’re the one supporting a Sun Ray deployment on Linux, odds are you’ll be spending a lot less time dealing with user configuration problems than you would with any other Linux desktop or thin-client deployment.

And while the jury may still be out on how Sun’s latest Solaris on Intel strategy will play in the channel, Sun Ray on Linux could be just the answer solution providers in some vertical markets—and even some pretty horizontal ones—are looking for.

Sun Ray with the Java Desktop environment is especially well-suited for environments where workers don’t have a designated workspace, share a desk or move from one desk (or counter top) to another over the course of a day—places like a call center, or in education, laboratory or health care environments.