Mark this was in the Boston Globe yesterday. Link will be active thru today friday (first day of spring, although looking out the window here it's anything but).|
BC gets A for network effort
By Hiawatha Bray, Globe Staff, 03/19/98
ou realize Boston College is way ahead of the technology curve when you visit one of the campus dining halls and see ethernet jacks lining the walls. A student armed with a dish of buffalo wings and a laptop can plug into the campuswide computer network and the Internet.
But what about the kids who don't own laptops? Until recently, they relied on a bank of obsolete Apple Macintoshes installed in the dining hall. Not anymore. The Macs have been replaced by IBM machines.
Another victory for the Microsoft-Intel computer duopoly? Not quite. You won't find an Intel Pentium chip inside the IBM Network Station, and not a single byte of Microsoft software. Scarcely any software at all, in fact.
The Network Stations are IBM's entry in the market for network computers, also known as NCs. They're simple computers, stripped of disk drives and hitched to a high-speed network. To run programs, NCs must first download the software from a central server computer. In some cases, they don't run programs at all. Instead, the server does the heavy lifting and the NC just provides a video display and keyboard.
NCs were the flavor of the month - about 18 months ago. I was impressed in late 1996 when Sun Microsystems Inc. unveiled its JavaStation NCs, based on the company's Java computing system. People such as Oracle Computer Corp. chief executive Larry Ellison proclaimed that devices like the JavaStation and the Oracle NC would challenge Microsoft. Instead of buying bundles of Windows software, he predicted, people would use NCs hooked to networks running Java or Unix.
So have you used an NC lately? I'm not surprised. JavaStations still haven't come to market, and in any case, Java-based computers are still too slow for comfortable use. NCs are nearly useless without a megabit-speed data network. Ellison has such a network in his house. How about you?
Even a fast network isn't enough. I toyed with IBM's Network Station in November, at the Comdex trade show in Las Vegas. Network security was nonexistent. You could download software from the 'Net and stash it on the Comdex server - buggy shareware, viruses, anything. By the end of the convention, the server's hard drive resembled a science project gone horribly wrong.
The Boston College installation avoids this silliness. So far, the school has deployed only eight of the 35 units it has bought, and these NCs are running on a hefty IBM RS/6000 workstation that zipped along smartly when I tried it. According to Mary Corcoran, the college's associate director of technology planning and integration, BC will soon upgrade to a machine similar to the Deep Blue computer that won the world chess championship last year. In addition, the system blocks all downloads except e-mail messages.
The case for NCs seemed to weaken further last year, as personal computer prices began to fall. When the average PC cost two grand, an $800 NC looked like a great deal. Today, that same $800 will buy you a PC far more powerful than an IBM Network Station.
Bob Dies, general manager of IBM's NC business, says he's selling the devices for under $500, well below list price. Besides, he said, the real savings with NCs come from sharply lower maintenance costs.
Corcoran says that was a major reason the college is switching to NCs. ''When we needed to upgrade [Macintoshes], we had to go around to every machine and upgrade the software,'' she said. For NC software upgrades, Corcoran will simply install the software on the server.
The deployment of NCs at BC is a hint that this moribund market may at last be coming to life. A much bigger hint comes from Allstate Insurance, which has bought 45,000 IBM NCs. Sun says it'll finally start selling its JavaStations this month.
Even Microsoft is joining in. Its forthcoming Hydra software will be specially designed to serve up Microsoft programs over networks of NCs. Market research firm Zona Research figures more than 650,000 NCs will be deployed this year. It looks like Boston College is ahead of the curve once again.
Hiawatha Bray is a member of the Globe Staff. You can send him electronic mail at bray@
This story ran on page D01 of the Boston Globe on 03/19/98.
c Copyright 1998 Globe Newspaper Company.