Remote Possibilities

Regarding "Remote Access" (May 1), some may remember when founder and longtime CEO of Digital Equipment Corp., Ken Olson, asked quite seriously why anyone would really want a personal computer. He essentially made the same point that Oracle's Larry Ellison did several years later. Olson was laughed at for this comment, as was Ellison. Yet Olson's real perspective was rarely if ever followed up, having simply been dismissed as missing the point of PCs.

His thoughts, however, were based on his thorough understanding of the need to keep operating systems and applications updated, constantly feed computers with patches and upgrades, and frequently back up data. He foresaw the pain all PC users experience today. Most of us simply want to do our work, not maintain a PC. Consider the time necessary for government employees to keep their operating system and applications backed up and secured.

The days of the mainframe and large mini-computer systems has been gone for quite some time. When they died, network speeds at the time simply could not keep up with computing demands. Computers needed to be both on a network, yet independent.

There is a growing trend toward computing consolidation in data centers, largely driven by the cost of maintaining so many diverse, small servers and dwindling floor space with adequate cooling. The costs of maintaining, repairing and replacing PCs is enormous. Further, security breaches are found nearly daily, with significant ramifications. Yet users demand control over their computing, because they consider it personal. But computing for government business isn't personal, it's for government business.

I've read several recent articles in Government Executive that indicate that the Office of Management and Budget and Defense Department are taking steps to lock down PC operating systems to ensure a more uniform and manageable set of systems and applications. That's probably a step in the right direction. Perhaps a better step is to look much more carefully at going back to large, distributed data centers that serve applications over secure networks, now that broadband speed is readily available. A Web application business can work really well if it's implemented carefully.

Users should have a better version of what didn't really make it in the marketplace-network computers, or thin clients. Local storage at the client, except in environments where sensitive or classified data must be protected, would give users control over their documents. And they would be relieved of the burden of spending a ridiculous amount of time maintaining software on their PCs.

IT professionals could maintain the operating system and applications much more efficiently and effectively, and improve data availability and security.

The real answer is not merely what Google offers, nor is it simply today's thin-client hardware offerings. The real answer lies in the entire approach, including hardware, software, the network, policies and processes, and users. The old days of time-sharing and fears of mainframe failures are gone with today's robust continuity of operations processes and terrific failover approaches. It's now time to consider what Ken Olson and Larry Ellison, among others, really meant.

Alex N. Barenblitt
Ellicott City, Md.
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