I love the movie The Matrix. Aside from the
incredible special effects, the storyline is so
well-thought-out that many people don't even "get" the
whole movie the first time they see it. In case you
didn't see it, the basis of the film is that all of
our brains and other parts of our bodies are
electrically interconnected while software simulates
the world around us. Sleeping, waking up and going to
work are all simulated events. The whole concept of
entire generations living a lie through simulated
electrical impulses is fascinating to me.
What if this happened today? What if we were all
living a lie? For example, what if the consistent need
to buy faster and faster PCs with larger and larger
hard drives and memory for your agents didn't really
exist? Better yet, what if the need to give away your
latest batch of Pentium 133 machines as you purchase
the latest generation of desktops for hundreds or
thousands of seats within your company was eliminated
and you just didn't know about it?
In The Matrix, a character named Morpheus
was responsible for explaining to unsuspecting Matrix
inhabitants their predicament, at which point he was
able to liberate them. In real life, Sun
Microsystems is trying to shake up the world by
preaching that the days of the PC and the need for
frequent upgrades are numbered.
Interested? Well if you're a CIO, MIS director or
tasked with managing office computers or if you are
responsible for minimizing waste in your organization
and reducing management cost, please keep reading.
As you may recall, Sun Microsystems is the company
that for years has preached, "The network is the
computer." They may finally have proven their point
and in doing so may very well have just changed the
way users interact with networks.
Sun's new products, Sun Ray Appliances, are
stateless devices that process only keyboard input and
screen output, leaving all of the application
processing and storage to the server. The devices are
attached to a dedicated network and receive a stream
of pixel commands transmitting screen deltas or
changes, meaning they only have to handle the
processing of graphical functions as opposed to
calculating spreadsheets or reformatting desktop
publishing documents. This system takes advantage of
statistical multiplexing and is optimized for bursty
network conditions. You may be thinking this is
analogous to the dumb terminals so commonly used with
mainframes and minicomputers, but these devices are
much more powerful. As you may recall, dumb terminals
didn't have graphics per se (unless you include the
ability to awkwardly simulate graphics with text). Sun
Ray Appliances can process any graphics a regular Sun
workstation can tackle, save those of the 3D variety.
The whole premise of this computer design is that
CIOs told Sun they wanted something simple and easy to
manage. Sun Ray Appliances are the response to that
request, as the machines themselves, which vary in
model from the Sun Ray 1 to the Sun Ray 150, are
stateless machines having no moving parts. They have
five-year warranties and are not upgradable. In fact,
these machines are more like telephones than
computers. When you factor in the $299 starting price,
you realize that some of your executive phones could
actually cost more than these devices!
In case you think these machines are nothing more
than stripped-down computers, you'd be mistaken,
because Sun Ray Appliances have the potential for a
very rich user environment with Web access,
multimedia, CD audio quality and the ability to access
mainframe and Unix databases, Linux and NT.
The Sun Ray devices are attached to a Sun server
and can run any version of Java or Netscape and any
application that runs on Solaris 2.6, 2.7 or 2.8 runs
on Sun Ray appliances. It is precisely the ability of
the Sun Ray to run in all of these environments that
makes it so versatile. Being able to run Sun's version
of Unix as well as Java allows these machines to
connect to just about any computer or database.
Additionally, using the Java client of the excellent
product MetaFrame from Citrix allows Sun Ray machines
to access any NT Microsoft-based server applications.
Of course, you could always install a Sun PCi II
Coprocessor Card in your server, as well, to run PC
applications, but I would think any resource-intensive
Microsoft OS-based programs would run more efficiently
from a remote server accessed through a Citrix or SCO
Sun's initial target with these machines was the
enterprise, financial services and government markets.
The product line soon started to take off in the
education market as an appliance to access the campus
network. The next area to show strong interest was the
K-12 market because of the inherent simplicity of
As you might imagine, another very hot market for
this approach is the call center market, as users not
only get all the advantages listed above, but they can
have 100 sessions or simultaneous users on a single
Sun server with 4 CPUs!
Another interesting twist on traditional computing
is that Sun Ray Appliances come with the ability to
accept smart cards that contain user profiles.
Different users can have totally different desktop
applications and access rights and can access their
desktop from any computer on the network by just
plugging in their card to any Sun Ray on the network.
Once the card is plugged in, every setting of your
connection, including caps lock, is synchronized with
the machine. This capability is ideal for multiple
shifts or supervisors of large contact centers,
allowing them access to their unique applications from
any workstation. In case your agents are like me and
are likely to leave their ID cards at home from time
to time, rest assured that they can still log on with
a user name and password.
The machines themselves are fairly high-end, with
1280 x 1024 graphics as well as 16-bit 48.KHz audio.
Sun tells me some contact center customers use these
machines as multimedia training devices while agents
await calls. You can even allow agents to participate
in collaborative computing since these devices can
support just about every standard there is, such as
H.323, T.120, T.127 and H.263 using SunForum 3.2
software. One of the engineers at TMC Labs actually
a Sun Ray by conferencing it with Microsoft's
NetMeeting on another machine. He removed the smart
card from the connected machine and plugged it into
another Sun Ray that had a video camera. Once plugged
in, the new machine picked up the conference where the
last one left off and also connected the camera into
the collaborative session.
In case you're not familiar with Sun and are
concerned about switching from PCs to Sun machines,
you should know about Star Office, a free office
application suite that is compatible with and
functionally equivalent to Microsoft Office.
For all the great features in the Sun Ray
philosophy, there is also a single, inherent drawback.
The ability to work remotely is not enabled in Sun's
current solution. Sun tells me this is not their
target market at the moment as it is difficult to
guarantee latency levels needed to have such a
solution work remotely. They tell me they are working
with other vendors to resolve this issue and they hope
to have a viable solution in the future.
But remote access aside, the Sun Ray paradigm is
certainly compelling and so is Sun's argument that
data becomes so important that it eventually will live
in the network. Sun proudly tells me that their
devices give CIOs freedom of choice. Agents using Sun
Ray Appliances can access just about any system. In my
judgment, however, you are still locked into a Sun
server and Sun appliances. So it is true that your
agents can now play in the open computing game, but
they need a Sun Ray and a connection to a Sun server
as the price of admission. Still, this solution should
be refreshing to those who don't want to be locked
into Microsoft-based products.
Of course, Sun is not alone in this market. IBM,
Wyse and NCD are all competing in this space and we
can probably expect more competition in the future.
The concept of thin clients is certainly not new and
the ability to leverage such high-end processors
finally makes it possible to really get the most out
of this shift in computing.
Certainly Sun makes a compelling argument with
their Sun Ray Appliances and the price for access to
this type of solution is lower than at any time in the
past. The question is whether or not companies are
ready to give up their PCs to move to this type of
solution. The idea of having a single box responsible
for the computing needs of 100 users is very
compelling. And if all this doesn't make you at least
interested, then consider the following. The people at
Sun tell me they have hundreds of Sun Ray Appliances
connected to their servers that haven't needed
rebooting for six months or more. Having been a former
UNIX administrator myself, I can attest to the fact
that UNIX is bulletproof, especially in comparison to
any Microsoft operating system I have ever worked
with. Perhaps Sun is onto something really big with
this contact center push since there are few areas of
any company more mission-critical than contact
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