TECH TALK: SMEs and Technology: Client Architecture

The reference hardware architecture for small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) needs to ensure that even as the total cost of ownership is kept low, there is no compromise in performance. By making computers affordable, it will become possible for SMEs to provide one to every employee in the organisation. This ubiquitous presence of the computer will create the platform for the software applications to revamp existing business processes and make the enterprise as a whole more productive.

The two fundamental components for the hardware architecture are thin clients and thick servers. The thin clients are low-cost, low-configuration computers. It should be possible to create these for about USD 50 (Rs 2,250). Add to that a refurbished monitor for USD 40, and keyboard and mouse for USD 10, and one has a USD 100 desktop solution.

How will the USD 50 base unit become possible? This virtual computer needs to be only able to work as a dumb terminal, though fully capable of displaying the graphics that one sees as part of existing desktops (in Windows and Linux). It needs to have a processor of about 100 Mhz, 2 MB RAM, a couple of USB ports for the keyboard and mouse, LAN support (either for 100 Mbps Ethernet or WiFi) and should be capable of driving a monitor/display unit.

Traditionally, thin clients have been used in companies for reducing cost of administration, rather than the cost of the actual solution itself (if one takes into account the software costs of solutions like Citrix). This is what is different about the approach being presented here: we want to create architectures which can bring down costs across the board of hardware, software and management. In other words, we do want the best of all worlds!

There are many options to build such a thin client: a 486-class motherboards, existing PDA or cellphone architectures, set-top box designs or even game console units. The point is that there is a need for a solution which does the bare bones processing only, shifting the entire load on the server. The key is the cost for such a unit only at these low price points will it be possible to achieve a 1:1 employee:computer ratio in the SMEs.

The closest we can get to these solution today is through the use of older (second-hand) computers which are available for about USD 75-150. Here, the issue in India is the anti-dumping duty which adds USD 200 to the price. But in other countries, this could work fine. One problem with this is the lack of consistency in the configurations of the older computers, and the shipping costs. An alternative solution is through the use of VIAs mini-ITX motherboard. A computer built using VIAs board with a new monitor would cost about Rs 11,500 (USD 250). Using an older monitor would bring the cost down to about Rs 9,000 (USD 200). We need a solution at half this price point for mass-market consumption.

It needs an enterprising group of people to put a solution for a thin client in place. This is a very interesting opportunity we are unlikely to see the likes of Intel and AMD target this market, because of the fear that this could disrupt their primary CPU brands. The thin client segment needs a disruptive innovation to target the non-consumers of computers.

Tomorrow: Server Architecture

TECH TALK SMEs and Technology+T

Published by

Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.