Sun shines its Rays on university library

When students return to school at the University of Western Ontario on September 8, there’s a pleasant surprise waiting at the library.

The London, Ont.- based university is beefing up its library systems with 450 Sun Ray 170 ultra-thin client workstations and four Sun Fire servers – two entry-level V240 and two mid-range V890 models.

Joyce Garnett, university librarian, spent the summer with her IT crew, headed by Penny Westmacott, ramping up Western’s seven research libraries to reduce line-ups and improve network accessibility.

“We’ve experienced a 25 per cent increase in students [to 30,000 since 1998] and it made sense for us to build on what we already had, as the university continued to expand. We’ve been really happy with Sun’s thin client workstations,” said Garnett, who’s seen Western Libraries’ use of the Sun Rays grow from 200 workstations.

“The Sun Rays just don’t seem to break down; they keep on going and going, far longer than the PCs we had to refresh every 3-4 years. This kind of reliability has cut enormous costs for us in terms of reducing IT staff support,” said Garnett.

Security is another major motivating factor for the university to upgrade its library workstations, according to Garnett. “Because everything happens at the server level, students don’t have the means to download and install whatever they want. Administration is also focused on the servers because that’s where all the processing is taking place.”

Westmacott, director of Library IT Services, said the installation of four additional Sun servers provided Western Libraries with a small grid computing system.

“The servers are configured in a load-balancing structure,” said Westmacott. “This means if we do have a problem with one of our servers, we’re able to take it out of productivity. The system may slow down somewhat, but without actually affecting access to the network.”

Westmacott has also been testing Sun’s StarOffice suite and is confident of replacing Microsoft’s Office products in time for the students’ return to school. This will allow for full Office productivity support, says Westmacott. “Until now, students have been able to view MS Word, PowerPoint and Excel documents on the workstations. With StarOffice, they’ll be able to create and work with Office documents.”

This move has also proven cost-efficient for Western Libraries, which otherwise would have had to install a Windows server to support full Office functionality, as well as Microsoft’s Terminal Services, to enable the Sun Rays.

“We’re operating in a Unix environment on our servers, but we’ve been testing StarOffice in both Windows and Unix. We haven’t found anything we can’t do yet, but we’ll only know for sure once we have all our students trying it out,” said Westmacott.

Western Libraries’ 450 workstations are now powered by 16 processors in three Sun Fire V890 servers. Replacing proxy servers, the smaller V240 servers are deployed for remote authentication of outside users and for public access to Western Libraries’ catalogue data, replacing the integrated library system.

Edward Moffat, team lead for desktop simplification at Sun Microsystems of Canada in Markham, Ont., explained the ultra-thin client concept: “Other thin client workstations run a local operating system and local RAM. With Sun’s ultra-thin client workstations, there’s no intelligence on the workstation, only a tiny bit of programming called firmware. The operating system is all happening at server level and the workstations are stateless.”

In addition, the workstations supported multiple OS functionality with servers operating on Windows, Linux and/or Solaris, said Moffat.

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