Is the NC Really Cheaper?
But is it necessary to sacrifice savings for versatility? To answer that, you have to examine the TCO. Computers come with two price tags: You remove one when you wheel the system off the loading dock; you keep scraping at the other for as long as you own the machine. The real answers may have to come once NCs are implemented. But it's possible to estimate the TCO based on the available information.
A recent study by the Gartner Group did just that. The study concluded companies could achieve the following cost savings over Windows 95 desktop environments: 26 percent for the NetPC, 31 percent for the NC-1 and 39 percent for the near-NC.
The total annual costs for the PC were $9,785--$7,325 for the desktop and $2,460 for the network. The NetPC came in next, with desktop costs of $5,197 and network costs of $2,070, for a total of $7,267. Near-NCs followed, mostly because of their high server-related costs ($882 compared with $682 for the PC), totaling $6,776 ($4,553 for the desktop and $2,223 for the network). The NC-1 was the least expensive option, with desktop costs ($4,089) and network costs ($1,922) totaling $6,011.
The study separated desktop and network costs into four categories--capital, technical support, administration and end-user operations. Capital included hardware, OS software and depreciation. Tech-support included Tier 1 Help Desk (LAN administration and help desk-type activities), documentation, application consulting, product review, newsletters, user groups, IS desktop learning and disk management. Administration on the network side consisted of asset management, security, and formal and informal auditing. On the network side it included capacity; moves, adds and changes; upgrades; server purchases; and NOS administration. End-user operations on the desktop side included data management, application development, formal and casual learning, client peer support and what's commonly called UBFWI (user's been fooling with it). On the network side, it was network peer support, misdiagnosis and training.
A 2,500-desktop network was used in the study, and the user breakdown exemplified the mix at a typical company--15 percent power, 65 percent office and 20 percent general.
Capital. The study placed the capital cost of the PC at $1,850, compared with $980 for the NC-1, $1,015 for the near-NC and $1,733 for the NetPC. The configuration of the PC in the study was a Pentium 166 with 24MB of RAM, a 1GB hard drive and a 17-inch monitor. Gartner used Tier 1 hardware vendors, which include such brand names as Compaq, IBM, Digital and Hewlett-Packard. The configurations of the NCs were based on the units currently on the market. The NC-1s and the Near-NCs typically come with 8MB of RAM and do not have a monitor; the NetPCs are not yet available.
IBM Network Stations' software lets users store their personal desktop settings.
The study did not include software. If your PC's bundled apps are inadequate, buying the ones you need could be a major expense. NCs run software from a server, so there's no per-desktop software to buy. But you may have to acquire per-desktop licenses, as is the case with Citrix WinFrame, which allows users to run Windows apps on their NCs. License fees can often equal what you'd pay for locally run software.
Technical support. Desktop tech-support costs in the study were highest for the PC ($1,066, compared with $870 for the NC-1, $859 for the Near-NC and $970 for the NetPC). The most likely reason is because PC users can tweak their systems and then need help in solving the problems that often result. Training, referred to as IS desktop learning, is likely with any new system or software package. A typical PC training course costs several hundred dollars per student and requires one or more days away from work. Proponents claim NC training will cost less, but this will depend on the nature of the software. Logic dictates that a Java-based word processor with the same breadth of features as a Windows program will require the same amount of training. PC software has the advantage that training resources (books, classes, even co-workers) are already plentiful.
Administration. Desktop administration costs were more than double for the PC ($945 compared with $440 for the NC-1, $460 for the Near-NC and $422 for the NetPC). On the network side, the difference was slightly smaller ($552 compared with $230, $310 and $406, respectively). The study assumes one administrator can handle 41 PC users, 69 NC-1 users, and 60 Near-NC and NetPC users.
End-user operations. Another area where desktop costs were substantially higher for PCs was end-user operations ($3,464 for the PC, compared with $1,799 for the NC-1, $2,219 for the Near-NC and $2,073 for the NetPC). On the network side, the numbers were $588, $392, $392 and $434, respectively.
Gartner doesn't expect the NC market to settle down for another 12 to 18 months, and is convinced vendor hype "and glossy slides of nonexistent or unavailable products and features will dominate the market." The report says the NC is not yet ready to serve as a general-purpose PC replacement, but is best deployed in specific environments such as help desks or call centers where it fills a specific, reduced or limited function. "The availability of applications, development tools and management products to provide full support to the NC environment are critical factors before the NC can replace the PC," according to Gartner. The company predicts these solutions won't arrive until at least 1998.
"Don't throw away your PCs; network nirvana is not yet a reality," says Dave Cappuccio, vice president and research area director, Network Technologies, Gartner Group.