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Thinking about IT in tasty terms

June 1, 2007
by Gerry Andrady
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A dessert analogy can help you with the decision to choose a Web-based or client/server application

The technology choices today's behavioral healthcare executives face can easily become complicated and overshadow the benefit any technology could bring to an agency. One of the key technical decisions facing any organization evaluating its technology is the age-old (or, more appropriately, Internet-age-old) choice between client/server applications and Web-based systems.

The choices sound unappealing. The technical nature of these terms can confound and intimidate those without a computer science background. In these cases, I have found the best approach is to relate the technical choice to a more palatable decision-making process—in this case, dessert selection. It's not an entirely absurd comparison, as one should approach both decisions in a similar fashion: Analyze your particular situation and options, apply your preferences, and make a decision.

In a client/server application, there is usually a software program (the client) that runs on a user's computer that “talks” to a more powerful computer (the server) responsible for providing information. Microsoft Outlook is one common example. Consider client/server applications as the “ice cream” of the technology world. There are some prerequisites and limitations to their use, but given the appropriate situation, they can be an excellent choice.

Among the advantages of client/server applications are:

  • Fast speed. Ice cream is an easy, fast dessert—just scoop and go. Client/server applications are similarly fast, as no Internet connection is required and the technical architecture allows for slightly faster response times than Web-based systems. If your circumstances do not allow for high-speed and/or wireless Internet access, the speed of a client/server option may be a significant advantage.

  • Strong integration. Ice cream goes with anything—brownies, cookies, cake, etc. Similarly, client/server applications often are easily integrated with common desktop functions such as printing, scanning, etc.

Client/server applications do have some disadvantages:

  • Prerequisites. Just as you need a bowl or cone for ice cream, a client/server environment has some requirements as well. An organization may need to upgrade its desktop software or add memory to users' computers, and a server is required. If the capital budget makes it difficult to handle the initial investment, this may not be the best choice.

  • High maintenance. A client/server application can melt like ice cream if you are not careful. Additional human resources and/or capital to handle new hardware, system security, data backup, software support, product updates, etc., may be needed to maintain your system.

A user accesses Web-based applications over the Internet, usually through a Web browser. They often are hosted remotely by the vendor or application service provider (ASP). Web-based applications are more of a “pie” type of technology. The agency's maintenance efforts are less because the server is most often managed by the vendor. The organization displaces most of the capital costs to the ASP.

Among the advantages of Web-based applications are:

  • Low maintenance. Pie doesn't melt. Web-based applications leave the agency little to worry about. The ASP handles all the security, support, and maintenance needs, often bundling future features into a recurring monthly charge.

  • Accessibility. The application is available anywhere the Internet is available, not just your workplace.

Web-based applications do have some disadvantages:

  • Prerequisites. A good pie's key ingredient is the filling, and the key ingredient for a good Web application is a fast Internet connection. If you are using a dial-up service or have a slow wireless connection, the system's response may not be impressive. If the Internet connection is interrupted, the application may be unavailable.

  • Continued cost. A Web-based application is like a dessert of the month club. To continue receiving pies, the user must keep paying the subscription. In an ASP model, Web-based application vendors often charge recurring monthly fees that eventually, over several years, could exceed the upfront cost of a client/server system.

Web-based applications will benefit from Web 2.0, the next generation of the Internet. Web 2.0 allows for rich Internet applications (RIAs), in which Web applications mimic the benefits of traditional desktop and client/server applications using the Web-based model. Examples include Google Maps and Gmail, which update the Web interface without reloading the Web page. This is the Internet version of pie a la mode. The advancements in Web-based technology are allowing Web applications to match the speed and usability of client/server applications.

In the end, choosing a client/server or Web-based application will depend on your tastes and preferences, but this dessert analogy can serve as a sweet way to overcome some of the heartburn in making the decision.

Gerry Andrady is Director of Product Strategy at Qualifacts Systems, Inc., which offers Web-based applications.