Slimming down clients can help shave IT costs

Here’s the “skinny” on how your business might be able to extend the life of desktop computing, lower the cost and effort of user support and create a more secure environment. Think “thin.”

That’s thin-client computing, where the “fat” of processing, applications and storage is literally trimmed away from the end-user PC and bulked up onto centralized servers.

Desktops or workstations reach into these servers for their computer processing, application and storage functions, and don’t require much of any “localized” capability. That means no upgrades are needed on devices operated by end users and very little system maintenance.

It’s not a new computing idea, but thin clients are gaining greater interest and popularity in business settings of all sizes.

The rationale for this simple and highly controlled model of business computing was highlighted this fall during a Hewlett-Packard event in New York City, where the company announced new personal systems of desktop and workstation computers. Curiously, a roundtable discussion of thin-client technology ensued.

IT directors from six disparate companies talked about the challenges of expanding and maintaining their business computing environments. Four of the group explained how they opted for centralized computing, served up in less costly, easier to manage and much more versatile thin clients.

To hear praise of thin-client computing at an event focused on “fat” end-user PC and workstation systems was unexpected.

The four companies adopted thin-client computing in an effort to reduce the cost of their end-user computing support and extend the lifecycle of their equipment.

The experience of National Heritage Academies (NHA) of Grand Rapids, Mich., highlighted many of the basic challenges shared by all four and the values sought. NHA is a private network of 53 schools from kindergarten to Grade 8 that operates in five states.

“Before thin clients, we had about 4,500 desktops and laptops,” said Max Hunsicker, director of technology services. “Additionally, since we are on a four-year lifecycle with our desktops and laptops, we had up to 12 models of computers to support.”

NHA needed to speed up its student achievement assessment tests, explained Mr. Hunsicker. A student assessment is a set of four one-hour tests and evaluations administered to each student, three times a year.

Prior to the introduction of thin clients, it would take five days to complete one test phase and four weeks to perform all four phases.

“We had to reduce this (testing cycle) to less than 10 days,” Mr. Hunsicker says. “Thin clients quickly became the technology to explore. Our answer was to put two thin clients on mobile tables with complete power and data infrastructure built in to allow for ‘daisy-chaining’ of the tables.

“These tables are in the classrooms being used as part of the educational experience on a regular basis. When it is time to test, the tables are wheeled to a room, connected to each other and then the last table is connected to a power source to create an ad-hoc lab. Since the power consumption is very low for thin clients, these ad-hoc labs can be created in virtually any room that has a single power outlet.”

A financial analysis showed that if NHA could extend its end-user equipment lifecycles to six years and convert all existing desktops and laptops to thin clients, at the end that six-year cycle it would be in a position to add 3,200 more thin clients. That translates to a 200 per cent increase in student-use computers — at less than a one per cent increase in equipment costs.

The thin-client model significantly reduces hardware and technical support costs and simplifies an “imaging process” of software upgrades — a process typically done three times a year on traditional desktops. Moving to thin clients means the imaging process now needs to happen only once a year or less.

Bottom line: deploying 3,200 thin clients instead of desktops achieves US$230,000 a year of savings, Mr. Hunsicker estimates.

Morrison Mahoney LLP, a legal firm based in Boston, had a different challenge but the same need for cost reduction.

According to Frank Norton, director of information technology, the firm had traditionally replaced 350 PCs every three years because of expired equipment leases and warranties.

“We looked at several factors: from help-desk and capital expenses to repair costs,” Mr. Norton says. “(Thin-client) terminals are easier to swap out and have no moving parts so the ability to break is reduced.”

Among the benefits realized are a significant reduction in help-desk calls and Mr. Norton expects he’ll be able to skip one three-year lease cycle and save US$600,000 as a result.

Thin-client computers are much easier to “lock down” from an IT security perspective, he says, explaining traditional “fat” desktops require multiple security software packages.

“Security is very manageable with the thin clients,” he says. “The (thin-client) terminal sends screen shots and not data around the network. Just imagine installing anti-virus, spam and pop-up blockers, and firewall (software) and getting these to play nicely. We were constantly battling with the software conflicting. Having (thin clients) has allowed us to centrally manage security and not have it loaded on the remote desktop.”

Thin-client computing is a style suited to many business types. Kevin Jagdeo of CAIL Systems agrees the more users there are, the more cost effective the thin-client model becomes. And it’s a cost-effective approach for as little as five workstations, using e-mail, word processing, spreadsheet programs and other common business applications, he says.

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