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What is a Network Computer?

By Jennifer Voight
Updated May 16, 2024
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A network computer, or NC, is one of multiple diskless computers dependent upon and connected to another computer that holds hard drive space or processes information. The term was originally trademarked by Oracle in 1996, but now refers to any arrangement of computers connected to a common server. Also called a diskless node, hybrid client, or thin client, a network computer is a diskless computer that lacks disk drives, depends entirely upon a server for information storage, and must boot from a central server each time it starts.

Although similar, diskless nodes and thin clients have distinct differences. A diskless node may do its own information processing, relying on the server at boot-ups and for more complex information processing. A thin client essentially relies on the server for boot-ups and all information processing. Thin clients process only their own user interface.

Network computer arrangements have various advantages over a computer network of workstations with hard drives. Network computers are cheaper to manufacture and less expensive to run and maintain. They are also easier to update because only the server needs to be updated rather than an entire network.

A network computer can be run with only basic software, cutting costs for the entire network. This efficiency may come with a price. Diskless workstations and thin clients may work more slowly when many workstations are in use, taxing the central server.

The original concept of a network computer came about shortly after the release of Microsoft Windows 95. Oracle attempted to develop a concept that would render Microsoft’s operating system obsolete by introducing a computer that had none. Instead, Oracle’s network computer would rely on Oracle databases for accessing applications and storing information. Oracle’s network computer would be much cheaper than Microsoft’s personal computer.

Unfortunately, the product was released before it was ready. Network computers ran slowly, and Oracle lacked sufficient infrastructure to support the product. Personal computer prices dropped, making them even more attractive to consumers and more competitive with network computers. Oracle’s network computers were unable to compete, and the product was deemed a failure.

Still, the concept was not completely abandoned, and other developers have used aspects of network computer technology to develop newer, network computer–like technologies, like the diskless node, thin client, and hybrid client. Netbooks and smartphones are examples of devices that use scaled-back operating systems and are used primarily for Internet access and applications that rely on Internet access.

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Discussion Comments
By Soulfox — On Nov 12, 2014

@Markerrag -- I'm nut sure there is much difference between a network computer and the terminal you mentioned. The only thing I can think of is that those old terminals had at least a rudimentary operating system and some other things built in so they didn't rely solely on the server for everything.

By Markerrag — On Nov 12, 2014

I well remember using a terminal back in the 1980s that didn't have its own storage or provide much else other than a keyboard and display. It relied on the server at that company to store files and, well, just about anything else.

How is that different from the network computer mentioned in this article? The two seem to be one in the same in spite of the fact the term "network computer" apparently wasn't used until 1996.

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