The New York Times ran an in-depth article recently detailing the impact of thin client technology in the workplace. The story takes a look at the reasons why the idea has had trouble getting off the ground during the last 15 years, and why it's suddenly gaining traction now.
Author Ashlee Vance says many companies opt for thin client solutions to take advantage of better energy efficiency and lower maintenance costs. "Perhaps best of all," says Vance, "the users’ data is stored on the network. If the machine on your desk breaks, you just get another one and connect to the data warehouse, and off you go."
What stood out most to me in his article is the point Vance makes about the security of this emerging technology. He notes that there is a tendency to shy away from thin clients because "people are used to keeping confidential and personal information on their own machines, and many companies see moving away from traditional desktops as a risk. In 2008, only 3.7 million thin clients were shipped, compared with 300 million PCs, according to IDC." Vance says, however, that sales are likely to increase as "companies begin a number of test projects" next year to address these concerns.
Despite the fact that most evidence points to thin clients as a more secure computing solution, let's assume for the moment that IDC's numbers represent an overly-cautious approach in enterprise. If that's the case, I'm curious to know what it would take to convince a company's IT department that thin client technology is a safe option for its computing needs.
For example, most businesses were hesitant to adopt the iPhone the second it became available because of concerns there was no effective way to manage -- or wipe -- stored data in the event the smartphone was lost or stolen. Considering the reluctance of businesses to choose iPhones that have the potential to carry only a small amount of data, I can only imagine how unlikely a company would be to adopt a computer solution capable of carrying far more sensitive information.
On the other hand, since thin client technology can save a company many thousands of dollars in energy costs alone, perhaps businesses might be inclined to take greater security risks all in the name of belt-tightening. While I'm sure most companies wouldn't take chances like that, I wonder about the mom-and-pop businesses that are just squeaking by and need to make the tough decisions. What about the SMBs who have to cut corners somewhere and are forced to choose between health care for its employees or storing confidential customer data on a central -- and potentially less secure -- central server.
What's your take on thin clients? Do you think they are more or less secure than individual workstations? Where would you draw the line at saving money vs. risking data intrusion or loss?