HDS' appliance meets many of the NC's promises, but at what cost?
While it's not yet the $500 desktop, one of the industry's first NC makes major strides in this emerging market. SunWorld Online puts the @workStation through its paces and tells you if it meets the NC hype.
The HDS @workStation, HDS' network computer, integrates the Java Virtual Machine and several other facilities into existing X-terminals. This first look points out some of the system's shining examples of technology, along with a few quirks. (2,000 words)
With all the recent attention on NCs, we decided to examine one that has already emerged and is currently available -- HDS Network Systems' @workStation. But first a little history.
Based on an idea initially proposed by Sun Microsystems centered around its Java Virtual Machine (JVM), the NC is carving out its identity as top-notch Unix and PC vendors begin moving towards this new method of computing. Oracle, for one, leads the work on the NC through its wholly-owned subsidiary, Network Computer Inc. Joined by Sun, HP, IBM, and a host of other endorsers, it has created the Network Computer Reference Platform, a standards-based description of NC client hardware.
HDS Network Systems, built on the merger of Human Designed Systems Inc. and Information Systems Acquisition Corp., in 1995, and headquartered in King of Prussia, PA, is a well-known terminal and X-terminal vendor. Now the company has incorporated the Java Virtual Machine into its netOS operating system for its Intel 80960 RISC-based X-terminals.
We looked at the HDS @work Supra 66, a mid-line unit of its high-end graphics X-terminals. The terminal itself consists of a small footprint base unit, a 17-inch monitor, keyboard, and mouse. Although the X-terminal can boot off a remote Unix server using the BOOTP protocol, we were given a PC Card-based (PCMCIA) hard disk drive which contained the latest version of netOS 2.0.
Step one: Installation
Installation of the unit was quite quick. Once all the components were connected together and the hard drive was installed in the back of the base unit, we wired it to our office Ethernet with 10Base-T. Out of habit as a network administrator, I simply put together the unit and attempted to boot it without reading the manual. I know many administrators who do this. Of course, the first thing the X-terminal attempts to do is look for BOOTP servers on the network.
I hoped it would detect the local hard drive and use the boot image on that instead of looking on the network. I checked the configuration information again and specified that the system should boot from the local drive. I then assigned the IP address, hostname, gateway address, and subnet mask appropriately.
NetOS takes about 10 to 20 seconds to load and then you are ready to run. As a simple test, we used the terminal program to log into one of our Unix servers and open an X11 application. Although HDS provides a local Web browser known as HDS Explorer, I prefer to use Netscape 3.0. It started up just fine with only a small hitch -- a notification that there were not enough colors to support the colormap for the application. Translated this means the 8-bit video card can only display 256 colors on the screen at any one time. HDS, of course, does have higher-end video cards that support 16- and 24-bit color.
As a side note, the @workStation also provides a token ring interface, or can connect to remote servers through serial lines and using Point-to-Point Protocol, although we did not test these features.
Running around @work
When you start netOS, you get the default HDS X11 window manager. You have the option of switching to more popular managers like Open Look Window Manager (OLWM) or Motif Window Manager (MWM). The default window manager has an application toolbar for directly launching major applications and configuration tools.
All applications local to the station are also accessible through the HDS Explorer Web browser. When you launch this browser, you get a Web page with six icons for accessing the Web, launching local applications, launching remote Unix applications, changing the window manager, and entering the configuration manager and help system. Clicking on the icon for local applications will bring you to a page listing all applications on the system. Simply click on one of these icons to run the application.
The default window manager also has a taskbar similar to Windows 95's Start Menu and Taskbar. You can click your way to any application installed into the taskbar without opening HDS Explorer or typing the command for the application directly. As with the Win95 taskbar, any application you start will have an icon in the taskbar which you can click to select the window.
The HDS window manager has a virtual desktop system in its application toolbar with four desktop areas. Those familiar with virtual desktop managers know just how much space it creates for your windows. Each virtual desktop you choose can have its own set of application windows displayed so you don't have to overlap, minimize, or iconize applications just to see some of your windows. Motif and Open Look also support virtual window management features.
From a network access point of view, you can access remote files through common TCP/IP protocols such as FTP and TFTP. You can also mount Unix file systems through NFS client software. Access to Windows file systems remotely is available through NTrigue.
Terminal access is available through a telnet window that can access a variety of Unix systems as well as VMS/OpenVMS hosts. Access to IBM systems is available through the hds3270 application. Using RSH and REXEC, you can also start remote X-terminals on your desktop. Printer access is possible through the Unix print daemon, lpd on BSD, or through System V's printing facility. A remote printer is mounted on the station so that local applications like HDS Explorer can print directly.
Living with Java
With client workstations like the one from HDS, the future of Java at the corporate desktop holds promise. The market is now just taking shape. However, with applications like Corel's Office for Java, popular applications like WordPerfect will convert the concept of NCs as limited novelty systems into workhorses we can't live without.
HDS @workStation incorporates the Java Virtual Machine into its operating system. NetOS has JVM at a core system level rather than just the application level as with Web browsers like Netscape Navigator. This means that you can now call applets and applications and run them from the desktop as you would any other normal desktop application.
HDS Explorer is not the fastest or best Web browser I have seen, but it is certainly functional. A better test is to try the AppletViewer program that runs Java applets directly in the virtual Java environment.
The HDS operating system appears to be a minimalist version of Unix with additional features for multimedia capabilities and Java. When sufficiently stripped of baggage, the Unix kernel makes a fast system (e.g., QNX from QNX Software and MINIX, an older public-domain version used even until recently to bootstrap SunOS).
Wading into Windows
NetOS includes an NTrigue client for accessing Windows NT applications. NTrigue, like Citrix WinFrame, allows any X11-capable server access to a virtual Windows NT desktop from across the network. You log in as an NT user on a remote server and can access any applications on that NT system.
NTrigue requires that you have an appropriate PC-based server to host these services. Although very functional from the client point of view, NTrigue and its accompanying applications require quite a hefty NT server system to function. A typical NT server system requires approximately 32 megabytes of memory and at least 200 megabytes of drive space. NT Workstation suggests at least 16 megabytes.
NTrigue functions similarly to X11. Applications run on the remote server and are displayed on the local client, in this case the HDS @workStation. However, for each remote NTrigue user, you must install approximately the same amount of RAM as you would per NT workstation system. This means that if you have 10 NTrigue users at any time, you need to have at least 16 megabytes x 10 users + Base 32 megabytes = 192 megabytes of RAM. Essentially, you run a separate image of NT on the remote system each time. X11 servers require a proportionate amount of memory, but in my experience I have seen a 128-megabyte RAM Unix server supporting at least 25 to 35 X-terminals and remote X11 systems at a time without difficulty.
The issues of NTrigue aside, HDS @workStation definitely provides the ability to access Unix systems and Windows applications without any issues or problems with compatibility or emulation.
HDS has quite an array of multimedia capabilities in its X-terminals. Although our unit did not include these additions, you should note that HDS stations can provide CD-quality (44-KHz, 16-bit stereo) audio, video at 30 frames per second, a CATV (Cable TV or VCR) connection, video conferencing software, and video broadcasting services all across a LAN. These additions are in the form of add-on cards and boards as well as peripheral equipment like a video camera, a microphone, and speakers. They are based on the NetVideo standard initially created by NCD as an extension to X11 to allow networked multimedia. These multimedia options add another $600 to the cost of the system and are well worth it considering equivalent pricing for video and audio cards and software for PCs.
That's a wrap
The HDS line of network computers performs as well as a desktop system. The cost of our unit starts at $1,299; adding the 17-inch monitor puts the price at roughly $1,800. Although this is almost double the typical prices vendors have proclaimed for NCs, it nonetheless provides the ease of management desired of NCs. Smaller models of the HDS @workStation are priced as low as $750 which certainly hits the much-publicized NC price range. Strictly speaking, the HDS @workStation we evaluated does not conform to the NC standard since it does not include e-mail features (SMTP and POP, or optionally IMAP4), DHCP, and SNMP directly in its client software -- although you can access these applications over the network.
Problematic slowness we encountered was due to the version of netOS we were given which was stored on a hard drive. Typically, this data would be stored in ROM, making the loading of client applications faster by magnitudes. We did not evaluate the performance of Java Virtual Machine specifically, but an unscientific evaluation places it as fast as a more powerful desktop Pentium 133 system with 64 megabytes of memory and Windows 95 for running applications. A test with applets on the two systems showed equivalent if not marginally faster loading and operation of the applet on the @workStation. The age-old Intel i960 RISC microprocessor used very often for embedded controllers and even for some general purpose computing systems is still alive. Unbeknownst to many, Intel is still making a tidy profit on the i960 line although not as much as the 80x86 series of course.
You may be excited to hear that HDS has released a version of netOS incorporating the new features for all its models since 1991. This means that if you already own HDS X-terminals, you can simply download the new operating system and have system-level Java capability for all of them. Per station cost when properly configured and the lack of several notable features make the @workStation a more expensive NC than one would expect. Nevertheless, HDS has a strong head start and will probably aim to reduce costs. Being the first to market and having Windows and Unix application access and multimedia features make the HDS @workStation a good value when compared with a PC and its higher cost of management.
About the author
Rawn Shah is vice president of RTD Systems & Networking Inc., a Tucson, AZ-based network consultancy and integrator. Reach Rawn at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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