Can a PC support multiple users? A few suppliers say yes

In a world of Gigahertz multi-core systems, multi-user PCs are still possible. MiniFrame and NComputing Co. have some options.

Can a PC support multiple users? A few suppliers say yes (CC BY-SA 3.0)

We have all watched a major cultural shift in the world of IT, from optimizing the use of the computer to optimizing the use of the developer and user.

This move makes a great deal of sense. At one time, the computer, its memory and its storage were the biggest costs of supporting an IT solution. Over time, that changed. The drastic improvement in processing power and memory capacity, combined with amazing decreases in system and component prices, changed the ratio so that people, communications and power were all more costly than the machines and their components themselves.

These factors, along with users' desire for graphical user interfaces, changed the world of IT. It is not really clear, however, if all of the changes were beneficial.

Coding changed

This has lead us to largely move away from coding in assembler or third-generation languages such as Cobol or Fortran to using interpreted or incrementally compiled languages such as Python, PHP, Ruby or Java.

I remember toiling for weeks to develop code that would make a 12-bit PDP-8 computer gather information from a laboratory instrument, provide a quick analysis and display the results on a screen. If my memory serves me correctly, the system had only 4 kilobytes of memory and would execute only a couple of hundred thousand instructions per second. It was fast for its time.

Developers like me had to be extremely aware of how much memory their code consumed and how long individual instructions took to execute. If my code took too long to execute, I would miss important data coming from the instrument. I had to be careful about how much data I saved in memory or how extensive the analysis I would do of the data. I had, after all, only 4 KB for the operating system, plus my application and my data. As a interesting thought point, this article wouldn't fit in that amount of memory.

I did so much Octal arithmetic that it didn't seem odd to me when I slowly switched to Octal when balancing my checkbook. It took quite a while to unwind that mess! That's another story, however.

Displays and user interaction changed

We've moved away from block mode or character cell terminals to access applications running on remote minicomputers or mainframes to running them on powerful PCs and graphic-oriented thin clients or accessing them through virtual access software. It isn't at all clear, however, that people are much more productive than they were before.

I could write documents faster when using early word processors than when using today's feature-rich offerings. I can't tell you how much time I've wasted trying to figure out why the word processing software chose to reformat something so that a figure wouldn't fit properly in the margins.

There are a few cultural throwbacks that offer technology that makes it possible for a single PC to support multiple people. After all, if a PDP-11/34 minicomputer that could execute 300,000 instructions per second could support 15 people and a later Pentium 90-based machine that could execute 90 million instructions per second could support the work of over 200 people, what could a machine that contained a processor based upon an Intel Core 7 that had 4 cores, each of which could execute 2.5 billion instructions per second, do? Think Multi-user DOS for a reference.

Some software suppliers would have you believe that one of today's current batch of PCs is just good enough to support the work of a single person. Others think differently.

Multi-user PCs are still possible

A few suppliers still make it possible for multiple users to simultaneously share a single PC. Linux and Intel/Unix have been able to allow multiple users to run on a single PC for years.

Many ISVs and VARs take advantage of that fact to produce very low-cost, per-user solutions for small to medium-sized businesses or workgroup solutions for larger organizations.

What if your business has selected Windows and Windows-based applications? Is a multi-user PC still possible? A few vendors say yes.

While not an exhaustive list, here are two companies that use today's very powerful "single-user" PCs as multi-user computers:

  • MiniFrame, LTD. — This company offers a way to connect two to four users to a single PC for home users and two to 12 users for businesses. This product works in conjunction with Microsoft's Windows 7.
  • NComputing Co., LTD. — NComputing's vSpace Pro can support up to 100 users on a properly configured system. The company offers users several ways to connect to a single system. NComputing supports Windows 7, Windows 10 and man of the other Windows operating systems.

The products offered by these suppliers don't address every problem, but if your company is looking for a very low-cost way to support students, clinics or other computing environment, they are certainly worth learning


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