Thin-client in one form or another has been around for a long time. Take the old mainframe and dumb-terminal model as an example.

However, many now seem to laud thin-client as the sensible technology architecture for the modern organisation says Steve Hipwell.

But then, perhaps, just as many decry it as inflexible and smacking of big brother. Looking at both sides of the thin-client story, who is right?

As always, the technology should align to the business need and not the other way around. If you are an engineering firm running computer aided design (CAD) packages then thin-client is unlikely to be a suitable solution.

The same logic applies to any media-rich application processes. On the other hand, a retail-bank might require tight central control and regulatory compliance; and relatively plain media content for its average customer. In the case of the retail-bank, a thin-client model could be a good fit.

Another factor which seems to have brought thin-client into focus again is its green qualities. Thin-client devices are often advertised as consuming significantly less power than your average PC. This is a big operational plus in any economic climate, but especially so in a recession. Utility costs aside, thin-client devices generally have a longer useful-life than PCs.

An organisation might reasonably keep its PCs for three to four years; a thin-client device is often good for five to seven years. Not only does this mean reduced capital-expenditure on non-current assets; it also reduces the amount of technology waste that ends up in landfill. As the technology sector has a similar carbon-footprint to the much demonised aviation industry, we could do with cleaning up our image.

Just as client-side costs are reduced in a thin-client model, server-side costs increase with the additional capacity required to run applications from the data centre. Scaling-up data-centre operations is an expensive business; cooling costs alone can account for 70 per cent of a server's lifetime costs.

Unless you use a platform like Ubuntu Linux and Open Office, you will have to pay commercial licensing costs for your thin-client implementation. The process of deciphering which thin-client licenses are required is often not that transparent.

Whether thin-client licenses offer more value than traditional fat PC operating systems and software licensing is a matter for debate. Often outside consultancies are used to make the business-case and they may have vested interests.

Due to the perception that thin-client is still slightly exotic, specialist consultancies are, also, regularly used to fashion proof of concepts and carry-out systems integration. Such consultancies often push offers of a fully managed service and this seems to be a growing trend. All of this consultancy doesn't come cheap.

The biggest saving that thin-client usually brings to a business is a reduction in IT staff. This human-resource efficiency is sometimes dressed-up or glossed over as it's a tad unpalatable.

There might also be conflicts of interest; an IT department's management may not want to lose headcount and the associated dependencies that have a bearing upon their own function and salary. The whole process can be messy and should be judged from an informed overall value perspective as opposed to just figures on a balance sheet.

In many ways thin-client seems at odds with modernity and consumer-centric control, web 2.0 and the democratisation of information. But for so many functions it fits well as a rigid kiosk like mode of access. It can allow businesses to shed client-side IT jobs inline with the cross-sector disintermediation process that technology has accelerated. But, thin-client also creates business opportunities for a complete supply-chain.

It may be tempting to see thin-client as a win-win type technology, but it really does depend on a wide range of factors. The decision making process should thoroughly examine whether thin-client fits in with the whole business. Consideration to intangibles, such as, business-culture can impact productivity and therefore profitability as much as tangibles like capital expenditure.

As the global economy continues to de-leverage, more firms might look at thin-client as the leaner option. Thin can be the best choice for the right business when all things are considered. But, pay heed to the proverb 'It ain't over 'til the fat lady sings.'