Client-Server: What Is It and Are We There Yet?

By Gershenfeld, Nancy | Online, March 1995 | Go to article overview

Client-Server: What Is It and Are We There Yet?


Gershenfeld, Nancy, Online


Client-server computing. Client-server architecture. Downsizing by utilizing client-server systems. Client-server is the model for the future. The organization is moving towards a client-server strategy. This is a client-server application.

Of course you have heard of the client-server concept. You can't pick up a computing publication these days without the term catching your eye. It's even starting to creep into the ads you see in the more library-centric literature. On occasion, you even think you understand what it means. Then, you try to define client-server, and you get stuck.

So, besides the fact that it obviously has a client and a server, what is client-server computing, and, more importantly, why do librarians and information specialists need to care? What practical application does it have for information professionals?

BUILDING BLOCKS

Client-server architecture is designed to take advantage of what each component of a computing platform does best. The server is connected via a network to client workstations. The server stores and manages the data; the client accesses, updates, processes and formats the data; the network provides the conduit between the two.

To best describe the client-server model, it may help to review the computing building blocks that have culminated in the new model. These blocks include dumb terminals, personal computers, local area networks and the graphical user interface.

The Dumb Terminal

A massive leap forward from the age of punch cards, a terminal provided the means for recording input and receiving a response. A terminal consisted of a keyboard and a printing device. These were first the teletype terminal, with the slow chunking of the letter key on the paper or the terminal/printer, with dot-matrix heads moving across the page, or even the cathode-ray tube (CRT) display terminal with a printer attached. The fact is, however, that none of this equipment was anything more than a fancy (or not-so-fancy) typewriter. You typed here, it came out there on the page.

It took a modem and a phone line to communicate with an intelligent source. Dialing into a mainframe computer, either via an intermediary network or directly to the host computer, linked the terminal user with power and data contained on the mainframe. The terminal provided the means for the user to type in the commands to communicate with the host. Once the or key was pressed, the mainframe took care of all the computing. The terminal received the end results to show the user and transmitted further instructions to the host. (Hopefully, the phone line and connection were clean, or the "communication" between the terminal and the host would resemble a language neither recognized.) All interaction commands and results were textual.

The Personal Computer

The 1980s brought the era of personal computing. In the new age, communications programs emerged, such as Smartcom, CROSSTALK and Procomm, that enabled the personal computer (PC) to communicate with host computers--as dumb terminals. Nothing much changed over time except that a series of commands could be formulated ahead of time and saved into a file, then uploaded while connected to the mainframe. Results could also be captured on the local PC for examination or re-formatting later, while offline. However, in this scenario, the mainframe still did all the computing and all the work, and the interaction was still textual.

As the personal computer evolved into the established business tool it is today, applications programs such as word processors, spreadsheets and databases became readily available. The information captured on a floppy disk or the computer's hard disk could now be jazzed up, reformatted, even analyzed in new ways, by importing results into an application program. A table of numbers taken from an economic data source could be imported into a spreadsheet, from which graphic representations could be created. …

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