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TECH TALK: The Network Computer: What Is It?

September 28th, 2004 · No Comments

Wikipedia has this to say about the network computer:

A network computer is a lightweight computer system that operates exclusively via a network connection. As such, it does not have secondary storage such as a hard disk drive it boots off the network, and it runs applications off the network, possibly acting as a client for an application server. During the mid to late 1990s, many commentators, and certain industry players such as Larry Ellison, predicted that the network computer would soon take over from desktop PCs, and everyone would use applications over the internet instead of having to own a local copy. So far, this has not happened, and it seems that the network computer “buzz” was either a fad or not ready to happen.

The idea actually goes back a long way however, back to the text-only dumb terminal, and later to the GUI of the X terminal. The former needed no software to be able to boot, everything was contained in ROM, and operation was simple. The latter requires some files to boot from the network, usually using TFTP to get them after obtaining an IP address via DHCP and bootp. Modern implementations include not only the X terminal, but also the Terminal Server in Microsoft Windows 2000 and XP, and others. The name has also evolved, from dumb terminal to network computer, and now to thin client.

Webopedia adds:

A computer with minimal memory, disk storage and processor power designed to connect to a network, especially the Internet. The idea behind network computers is that many users who are connected to a network don’t need all the computer power they get from a typical personal computer. Instead, they can rely on the power of the network servers.

This is really a variation on an old idea — diskless workstations — which are computers that contain memory and a processor but no disk storage. Instead, they rely on a server to store data. Network computers take this idea one step further by also minimizing the amount of memory and processor power required by the workstation. Network computers designed to connect to the Internet are sometimes called Internet boxes, Net PCs, and Internet appliances.

One of the strongest arguments behind network computers is that they reduce the total cost of ownership (TCO) — not only because the machines themselves are less expensive than PCs, but also because network computers can be administered and updated from a central network server.

Sun too has said since its inception that the network is the computer. There is something appealing about the idea about low-cost, simple computers connected to a centralised computing platform. The network computer has had many names thin clients, diskless workstations, information appliances. It is one of these enduring ideas in computing that refuses to die and keeps floating back every few years.

The world of today is very different now as compared to the mid-1990s when Larry Ellison first proposed the idea of a network computer. To understand if the network computer can succeed in todays world, we first need to travel back and see what went wrong when the network computer was first introduced.

Tomorrow: Ellisons Ideas


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