The skinny on thin clients is that it makes cents

Thin is in for one of Canada’s largest banks.

Thin-client computing can boost staff productivity and speed things up for customers, while cutting operational costs. Sounds like one of those technology pitches that over-promises and ultimately under-delivers, right? Well, not in this case, according to J.P. Savage, the senior vice-president of systems, operations and technical services for Scotiabank. He says a move to thin-client has worked wonders for his company.

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The Scotiabank example highlights why the not-so-new idea of thin client may be the next big thing in business IT. A speaker at Citrix Strategy Day in New York City last week, Mr. Savage said Scotiabank reached a point several years ago where its desktop infrastructure could no longer keep up with the demands of 20,000 services representatives spread across 1,000 locations. Those employees, Mr. Savage explained, were plagued by outdated desktop systems and had grown frustrated with poorly performing information technology. Staff experienced high rates of computer failure and their productivity was low, and as a result, Scotiabank’s ability to deal with its customers was being seriously compromised – an intolerable situation for a bank that had earned numerous awards for customer service.

The spectre of yet another major, company-wide desktop PC upgrade – something routinely done every three to five years – would solve problems in the short term, but invariably the bank would end up in exactly same position a few years down the road as the cycle repeated itself and desktop gear once again became obsolete. It was a scenario that Mr. Savage says he could not endure.

“We were at the end of this cycle and users were growing frustrated,” he told the audience. “The performance was slow and seriously affecting our customer services success.”

To highlight the level of user frustration, Mr. Savage played a voice mail message that had been left for the bank’s CEO by a Scotiabank service representative. It was a plea for a desktop technology refresh based on the rep’s inability to work efficiently. She was exasperated, and noted that her level of frustration was so intense that she wanted to quit her job.

Mr. Savage needed an alternative to the vicious cycle of a “WinTel” (Intel-based PCs running Windows) upgrade to new fat clients. A fat client is a techie term for a powerful PC that runs programs and does all its processing right there on the desktop. He wanted to “focus on a new desktop paradigm,” adopting a low-cost IT delivery model and improving branch productivity by moving to thin clients – basically low-powered desktops that allow users to work with programs running on powerful servers housed in the IT department.

Scotiabank moved from running programs on thousands of individual PCs, to a group of 120 centralized application servers powered by Citrix remote control and collaboration software. Citrix specializes in software for networking basic PCs with limited storage and processing capability to “fat” servers with lots of storage and high-performance processors.

Scotiabank pared down its desktop computers and turned them into thin clients by removing most of their software, relocating the programs to centralized servers. This lightened processing load on users’ workstations, making the desktop environment much faster and allowing the bank’s customer support staff to do more. Most of Scotiabank’s aging PCs still had more than enough processing and storage capability to work as thin clients in the new system “once I got all the junk off my desktops,” Mr. Savage said.

The strategy also helped Scotiabank halve the cost of operations over a five-year period, he said, since centralized servers are easier to maintain and upgrade than a host of PCs. From purely a mathematical perspective, it’s a lot easier to maintain third-party software on 120 servers than 20,000 desktops.

Routine computer maintenance such as software upgrades also happens a lot faster. Where it previously took between seven and nine months – and up to $14-million – for Scotiabank’s IT professionals to deploy new applications and upgrades on 20,000 desktops, similar activities can now be done over a weekend on the servers that power the bank’s thin client machines, Mr. Savage said.

That’s not to say thin client is a radical new concept, by any means – it’s just that we’re now starting to see concrete payoffs from projects like Scotiabank’s. Thin client computing surfaced in a big way back in the late 1990s, with Oracle Corp. CEO Larry Ellison acting as chief evangelist. He recognized that on one hand business computing had become expensively localized and complex. And on the other, thin-client computing was a convenient Oracle proposition, since it defied the fat-client computing approach of chief rival Microsoft Corp.

Alas, the thin client prototype Mr. Ellison unveiled at an Oracle user conference in 1998 was underwhelming, to say the least. In retrospect, what was demonstrated at the Oracle event was an expensive, severely limited and unreliable thin-client workstation.

Judging by Scotiabank’s success, however, Mr. Ellison was definitely on to something with thin-client computing. He had the right idea with the wrong approach.

There are key differences in what Mr. Ellison proposed versus what Scotiabank successfully engineered. Key to the cost saving achieved by Scotiabank was keeping its desktop hardware, rather than buying the Ellison thin-client appliance. Thin client technology was the means to significantly extend the life and usefulness of the hardware owned and in use.

Secondly, Scotiabank’s thin-client computing platform runs in a Windows-based environment – something that Mr. Ellison didn’t (or refused to) envision. Windows, if nothing else, is a familiar computing setting for users that reduces the need for extra training, and it meant that Scotiabank could keep the applications and data formats it was already using.

Scotiabank’s experiences show that the thin-client concept works. In fact, the model of centralized information and applications fits snugly with the highly distributed nature of business computing today. With the added aforementioned bonuses of extending the life of existing computing hardware and retaining the applications and processes that people know, thin may be in for a whole lot more businesses.

–Dan McLean is editor-in-chief of publisher

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