As we come up on the end of the 2nd decade of the new millennium and I begin my third year as the product manager for Dell’s Wyse ThinOS thin client firmware solution, I wanted to take some time to reflect on the history of this industry game changer. I will also take a small peek forward as we prepare the ThinOS platform for relevance in the emerging world of “cloud first” application architectures that are quickly taking their place alongside the traditional VDI environments popular today.
When I entered the computer industry, IBM mainframes ruled the world with challengers such as Digital Equipment Corporation, Hewlett Packard, SUN Microsystems or any number of Un*x  based challengers all offering their vision of IT to the enterprise. The only thing most of these systems had in common was the ubiquitous terminal with a CRT and keyboard that allowed users to access the central system interactively – no punch cards or IT staff support needed!
But the 1990’s changed everything. Business users frustrated with the slow pace of application deployments and a seemingly endless backlog of requests started wresting control from their central MIS departments and began deploying low cost, yet very powerful, PC’s running Microsoft operating systems. They were buying off the shelf software or even hiring their own programmers to satisfy the insatiable desire for new applications. And what wonderful applications! MS DOS quickly gave way to MS Windows and opened the use of complex graphics to simplify user interfaces. Add a mouse as an input device and the expectations for computer application design changed forever.
But, as with many new capabilities, there was a dark side. While users rejoiced in their powerful new applications and their easier and more intuitive interfaces, the management of it all became orders of magnitude more complex. What used to be a small set of very powerful and well managed computer systems exploded into hundreds and even thousands of small machines scattered all over organizations. Users quickly demanded that their IT support staff administrate and operate these systems thus creating an even messier operational environment than ever before. By the mid 90’s the industry was ripe for yet another shift, as the market searched for a way to bring control back to the enterprise. With the introduction of the WinFrame multi-user operating system solution from industry pioneer Citrix Systems, the march to recentralizing the client landscape began anew. Microsoft then absorbed these technologies into their Windows NT family and brought centralized MS Windows based computing into the mainstream for enterprise IT.
It was into this environment that the Wyse Winterm devices were born. A solution that provided graphical terminal support for the Citrix WinFrame and Microsoft Windows NT “windows mainframe” system began to take hold in the market. These Winterm devices aimed to deliver connectivity to these new classes of applications running under the Windows environment while providing IT end user admins a cost effective and easily managed end-point to deliver access. These initial devices were burdened by complex operating systems of their own, with options such as WindowsCE or even Linux being used to power these new clients.
It was in this environment that Mike Liang of Wyse Technology locked himself in a lab, known as Area 51, to build out a completely new operating system dedicated to thin client devices that was released as Wyse Blazer, or ThinOS as we know it today.
Launched to the market in early 2000, it changed the game by essentially offering a terminal style device with the ability to access the modern windows applications using graphical displays, keyboard and mouse. This approach was unique in that Wyse developed a platform designed from the ground up to power terminal devices versus taking a full function operating system and attempting to restrict it.
Notable ThinOS based devices
By powering these devices with what is essentially firmware – Wyse was able to bring the security and manageability of terminals to the IT end user admin, while allowing them to offer their users full access to the modern applications they demanded. A new era was born, and it powered the Wyse brand to a leadership position in the enterprise client market. Wyse came to dominate this segment by establishing close partnerships with Citrix Technologies as they continued to pioneer the remote application access solution space and then growing along with leaders like Microsoft and VMware as they evolved their own solutions. Over time, this basic solution expanded into ever more complexity with VDI, server-side GPU acceleration and other technologies which now enable almost any user need to be satisfied from public or private cloud environments. Wyse’s approach of creating what is essentially an end user access appliance with rock solid security and a focus on the TCO powered tremendous growth leading to the acquisition of Wyse by Dell in 2012.
It’s these same design tenets that continue to drive the evolution of ThinOS to this very day, but as is always the case of IT, nothing stays put for long. In the last several years we have seen explosive growth in cloud-based computing with non-windows applications being developed under native Web first technologies built around HTML5 browsers and internet API’s that essentially will render the notion of a Windows Desktop as outmoded as we now consider the old VT240 style MS-DOS displays.
As the current product manager of the ThinOS product line I am mindful of the decades of history, the talented engineers and technologists that created the operating system and most importantly the tens of thousands of fanatically loyal customers with millions of end users that depend on this solution each and every day. The pace of change in the application space as well as the solutions being delivered by our virtualization partners in undergoing rapid evolution and it is imperative for our firmware to adapt, but not at the expense of the core attributes that make ThinOS the premier thin client platform in the industry to this day.
ThinOS remains the crown jewel of Dell’s thin client offerings. We are looking ahead now, with the support of our current partners at Citrix, VMware, and Microsoft as well as cloud providers such as Amazon, Google and MS Azure. Our core values of security, manageability and excellent user experiences will remain our touchstones as we move into the world of cloud first applications.
With everything going on in this space, one thing that will not change is the service, dependability and reliability that has come to define ThinOS.
 Note: At DEC we were taught never to fully spell out a dirty word