The skinny on Microsoft's thin client OSes

Awkwardly code-named Eiger and Mönch signal Microsoft's interest in utility computing

Writing technology articles for a living can occasionally be so frustrating that you want to take a bone saw to your skull. Take Microsoft, for example: Several trips to the campus followed by several phone calls asking for some kind of comment on the company's "utility computing" strategy and yet no one even hints to me about Eiger or Mönch, Microsoft's forthcoming thin client versions of XP.

The experience does, once again, bring up one of my fantasy jobs: Chief Microsoft Moniker Master. I think I'd be great, and I'd fully earn my huge salary and vast quantity of stock options. I'd earn all that by assigning to Microsoft projects code names that finally had a little style. Flair. Panache. I mean, really: Eiger and Mönch? They're just big hunks of rock sticking out of the Swiss snow. What about Salilusor Grendel? (Think about it, Steve. I'm worth every dollar.)

That job opportunity squandered, let's discuss all the silence I encountered around the two Swiss Alp thin client projects. I had to ferret this information out myself using the Web and a few Wall Street financial datacenter contacts who have more access to secret information because they occasionally talk to "select partners" who warrant more information from Redmond than I do. Not that I'm griping. Not me. No, sir.

Turns out Microsoft thinks there's some future in this thin client, servercentric computing deal. And wouldn't you know it? That's something the utility computing world is looking at as well, but I got no hint about two European mountains that apparently represent upcoming versions of Windows XP aimed at following the thin-client computing model. There's not much concrete to tell about the two peaks, other than that Microsoft is attempting to imbue them with features you'd expect from a thin client: Remote boot is an important one, as is full remote desktop management and shell control.

According to various sources on the Internet, the Alp brothers will run on 64MB of RAM, inside 500MB of disk space, and with a "Pentium-class" processor. Sounds a lot like XP Embedded to me, but then again we still haven't seen the management features.

For those who equate utility with grid -- and are even now looking to shoot flame-mail up my twin peaks -- I have two points. First, read my upcoming feature on utility before grabbing the e-kerosene. Second, utility is moving to a resource management model. That means whether you're talking about a grid, cluster, or stack, the idea is that more and more control is being required in the datacenter. Thin clients won't be a universal part of the model, but they certainly extend it appropriately for many applications.

A certain penguin is dominating new development in the grid/utility/smart cluster maelstrom, and there's a simple reason: That OS adapts to any of the aforementioned tasks. The only downside is that getting your business software to run on this model is not a penguin but a big hairy bear.

And the penguin isn't the only one. Sun has done some amazing work in Solaris 10, especially with its container model. So where's Microsoft? We've got Data Center Edition of Windows Server, but that's really just a question of multiple CPUs. More appropriately, we've got Virtual Server. However, we need to do some performance tests before we try it in a utility model as a way to provision new servers on existing hardware. 

I think Eiger and Mönch, though burdened with tragically awkward code names, represent some immediate effort by Microsoft to address its real worry: a different back-end computing model. Redmond knows its bread and butter still sits on the desktop. Making that desktop as attractive and universal as possible is the only strategy Microsoft can adopt in response to new service paradigms.

Who knows? A Linux-run server farm married to a Windows-based desktop landscape may wind up being the norm.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.