Is the Rich Client Architecture Dead?

mainframe rich client cloud

Back when I started my high tech career, the mainframe computer was the ultimate thin client, server side architecture. Command line terminals with their vintage green screen interfaces populated the planet. Who doesn’t remember checking into a flight at the airport and having the airline agent key in commands at a ferocious clip? These systems were, and still are, scalable, reliable and relatively easy to upgrade and maintain.

A little over 28 years ago, full graphical user interfaces became popular. Microsoft Windows allowed developers to write applications that ran independently on the PC or as rich client interfaces to server side applications that were running somewhere else. The desktop was king and although these systems were harder to maintain, everyone wanted a rich graphical user interface. In 1993 Oracle decided that enough was enough and they coined the phrase “thin client.”

Remember the network computer that was supposed to be a game changer? While that didn’t quite happen, this era shined a light on what we have today – cheap user devices with enough power to display graphical and highly visual interfaces and nearly a total shift to computing on server side systems. These architectures are easier to maintain, easier to secure and take advantage of the connectivity provided by the Internet. I believe we’ve come full circle back to the glory days of IBM and when IBM deploys its System z software in the cloud and allows cheap devices to access and run those systems, it will be another seismic shift.

Why is this even relevant to modern day applications?

I have one word – cost. Server based technology is cheap, and thanks to the Cloud and SaaS, it’s getting cheaper and cheaper every day. Servers, storage, and networking are declining in price. Android devices can cost $100 and pack quite a punch. You can run disconnected while you create and process data, then sync up with a server to process even more data, leaving the heavy lifting of things like analytics and search to the server side of the architecture. The cheaper client hardware is also driving the way applications are developed. Standards such as HTML5, JSON, XML, and JavaScript are maturing, making it easier to standardize across multiple platforms and opening doors for cross-platform, composite applications that were not previously possible. In the race to thin client, web client and mobile native app architectures, Windows based architectures are at a bit of a disadvantage due to Microsoft’s reluctant and troubled embrace of Java.

IBM is celebrating the 50th birthday of the mainframe. I predict some exciting announcements and the rebirth of their original multi-user system. Maybe my airline agent will check me in on her mobile device next flight.

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Bob Potter is Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Business Information and Analytics Business Unit at Rocket.

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