Saturday, August 7, 2010

The thin-fat client

One of the benefits of web based technology for business applications and websites was that it required a zero based footprint; it would run on any computer as long as it had a browser: the thin client that would not require much PC resources at all. Those days are over now that we have built our applications and websites with heavy client side scripting. The guys in my team call it the thin-fat client.

In my previous blog post I had a bit of a rant about security and other questionable software components slowing your computer down. But everyone knows that over time your PC is getting slower. Well actually your PC still runs with the same speed but it has to perform more tasks and therefore you experience it to be slower. We build software that asks more of your computer.

Over the years we have added to this by improving the user experience of our web based systems and building and building functionality through the browser that traditionally only could be done via software installed on the client.

I have now four different cases at hand where performance of the processing on the client side has become a concern:
  • A customer facing website with heavy java script;
  • An application with server side code and a swing based client;
  • A flash based application;
  • And Microsoft Sharepoint requiring heavy java script and using many Windows and Office functions.
It simply means that the notion of the thin client is basically over. Where in the past web developers only needed to consider network speed and latency, primarily in relation to embedded objects such as images and video, they now have to consider the capabilities of the client computer again.

My experience so far is that this insufficiently happens and this applies also to paid consultants.

Let us all be warned again for this phenomenon for both custom development and off the shelf software. I doubt that software vendors are too keen to come with the message that their software will run on any PC via the browser but that they recommend you to upgrade all your desktops.

Isn't it funny that old things come back again? When the Internet was new, we heard talks about the thin client and PC's that would become simple and cheap because everything would run on servers. But we're closing the circle again and moving back to something similar to client-server architectures. And it is not that you don't have to worry about installation of software on the client either. We call them plugins these days such as the Java virtual machine (make sure you have the right version), Flash-plugin (Apple doesn't like Flash), MS Office or simply the browser ("the website runs fast with Google Chrome but slow with IE7").

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