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Here comes the Sun Ray

November 2, 1999
Web posted at: 9:21 a.m. EST (1421 GMT)


by Rawn Shah

(IDG) -- The beauty of Sun's Sun Ray 1 is that several technologies -- computer processing power, price, system administration, application software, and network bandwidth -- are all falling into place to create a good computing model that's not only cheap, but also provides what users need at the speed they're used to.

A leader in the Unix workstation and server market, Sun wants to increase the versatility of its servers. Sun has yet to break successfully into the desktop market, and is currently pinning its hopes on Sun Ray 1, a new, ultra-thin client/server system that runs applications on Solaris servers and views them on the desktop.

The Sun Ray 1 is actually Sun's fifth commercial attempt at creating a low-end user desktop. The first two -- the Sun IPC, a shoe box-sized machine, and the ELC, an all-in-one system that fit right into the back of the monitor -- came out together in the early '90s. The IPC sold well initially, but the ELC was never quite profitable enough for survival.

Next came the SPARC Classic, which in a single-box model looked not unlike the original Macintosh systems. Unfortunately, the SPARC Classic couldn't be used for much more than a slow X-terminal.

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Sun's most well-known, low-end user desktop has been the JavaStation, which the company put out several years ago. JavaStation was intended to be a system implemented in hardware that could directly execute Java applications downloaded from the network. Although the desktop came out at the height of interest in Java, it was nonetheless too long in the making, so upon its release there was no significant software for it.

The ultra-thin client computation model of the Sun Ray 1 is different from JavaStation in that all its application processing occurs on the server end, leaving the desktop responsible only for displaying graphics.

Alongside the Sun Ray are other vendors' products that use proprietary remote network display protocols, such as the Wyse and Neosoft Windows Terminals on the hardware side, and SCO Tarantella, Citrix MetaFrame, and Microsoft Windows Terminal Server on the software side.

From the outset Sun has struggled with the stigma of the Unix environment being too difficult for the average Joe or Jane to use, so this time it's leveraging a software/hardware combination that uses Solaris in the background but presents a non-Unix interface to the user.

On the hardware side, Unix workstations have remained relatively more expensive than PCs. To remain competitive with low-cost, low-end PC desktops, Sun has priced the Sun Ray at $495 to keep in step.

The hard rays of the Sun

The Sun Ray 1 is what's termed a network or virtual frame buffer. It simply presents elsewhere on the network information sent from a server. This can be visual information such as the desktop GUI, audio, or even video.

The device can also take input sent to the server to be processed, including a mouse and keyboard through the Universal Serial Bus (USB) ports, NTSC/PAL standard composite video (same as your TV) input through a video connector, and audio input through a microphone or other recording or external playback device.

Essentially, the Sun Ray has all the physical abilities of a PC for input and output, short of a 15-pin serial port for a joystick or other device.

The Sun Ray depends on the USB for all serial device connections. Although any device that uses USB can connect to the machine, the system still needs drivers that understand what to do with the serial information, so don't plan on hooking up your new digital camera or scanner with the USB interface.

Sun should have thought about adding an IEEE 1394 "Firewire" serial interface to the machine -- such as digital video cameras or an HDTV -- for high-bandwidth serial connections. Network connections go through a common 10/100 Mbps twisted-pair Ethernet connector.

The audio input is 16-bit stereo at 8 KHz to 48 KHz, which makes it better quality than the output of an average CD player. The video input works with any NTSC video source, which includes VCRs, cable TV, and non-digital video cameras.

It doesn't, however, include a built-in TV receiver, so you can't tune in TV stations through the device, and it requires an external cable box to view cable TV stations. What it is good for is image capturing with a video camera or video conferencing with others.

The graphics system in the Sun Ray can display up to 1280x1024 pixels in 24-bit color, which is ideal for monitors up to 21 inches in size.

The device runs the same processor as the JavaStation, a microSPARC IIep. This low-power-consumption embedded processor is the equivalent of an Intel 300 MHz Pentium II. It is based on the RISC platform of the SPARC chip family, and is more than enough to perform the basic tasks of drawing on the screen or funneling input through the various ports to the server.

The softer side of the Sun Ray

The Sun Ray itself doesn't contain user software, only device drivers for the hardware, a TCP/IP network protocol stack, an authentication module, and the Sun Ray Display protocol. All this fits into a 512 KB EPROM module within the machine. There is nothing to configure at all; the actual user environment software resides on the Solaris server that the Sun Rays connect to.

The Sun Ray uses the Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) to get a network address assigned from a DHCP server, which means you need a DHCP server running elsewhere on the network, something that's also provided on the Solaris server side. Once connected, each user can use account and password information to log in, or additionally use a smart card for more secure authentication.

The Sun Ray Server software that runs on the backend Solaris 2.6 or 7 server accomplishes many tasks. It controls the login sessions of users and provides a management interface for the administrator; implements virtual device drivers that can translate the higher level APIs used by X-windows applications to enable viewing throughout the Hot Desk interface; and handles disk, printer, and other peripherals connected to the server (or to the Sun Ray client) so they can be shared with other Sun Ray clients.

The server also includes Citrix Metaframe as an X11 application to allow Sun Ray clients access to available Windows and Windows NT systems.

The good side of ultra thinness

Because the application runs entirely on the server, there's no problem if users' machines die prematurely or if the network connection is dropped. Once the problem is fixed, and even if the users replace their units with another Sun Ray, they can continue doing their work in the same state they left it. Users may be encouraged to leave their applications running continually, but the server administrator always has the option of killing a session or putting an idle session timeout that ends it.

This statelessness also enables scalability on several levels. Because it doesn't matter which server it runs on, the Sun Ray can be attached to a network switch that connects to several servers that can support it. This allows for semilinear scalability on the network side by adding more servers. It might not improve in large increments if you also run the applications off the servers, but you can remedy that by switching the server to a larger model with more memory or CPU processing power.

As a note, no name-brand PC vendor currently sells a computer for under $500. Most such products come from smaller competitors and relative unknowns, sometimes in combination with rebates from Internet service providers (ISPs) or other software companies.

For example, the current promotion by AOL's CompuServe 2000 for $400 off the purchase of a new major brand PC requires that you pay a monthly fee of $21.95 for 36 months, which over the term of the agreement eventually totals more than $700. True, most people do need an Internet service anyway, but this means little to individuals and businesses who already have an ISP.

Sun has already burned some major bridges with the failure of its JavaStation, so the company's best hope might be to sell Sun Ray outside its regular sales channels, or even through a separate company. Sun might even consider bundling alternately sized all-in-one packages for various Sun Ray clients.

The real purpose behind the Sun Ray is to sell more servers, but that won't happen unless people buy the concept of the Sun Ray client.

The Sun Ray 1 is a good step towards a functional thin-client computing system, and it offers a low-cost software and hardware solution to workgroups and enterprises alike. Now it remains to be seen how popular it becomes.

Rawn Shah is an independent consultant based in Tucson, AZ. He has written for years on Unix-to-PC connectivity and has watched many of today's existing systems come into being. He has worked as a system and network administrator in heterogeneous computing environments since 1990.

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