One of the great things about computer technology is that it changes so fast. Every few months, new systems hit the market with more and better features, for lower and lower prices. But one of the worst things about computer technology is that it changes so fast. Last year's state of the art systems are well on their way to obsolescence today.
As your business grows, so do your computing needs. As revenues (and expenses!) increase, you hire more accounting personnel to take care of your receivables and payables. As sales take off, you hire more salespeople to interact with customers and keep those orders flowing in. As your business structure becomes more complicated, you divide the company into departments and hire more managers to oversee them. And to handle the paperwork generated by employing all these people, you hire human resources professionals.
Most, if not all, of these workers will need access to data on the company network to do their jobs. Some (such as graphic artists or those who work with video or CAD) will need high powered workstations, but most of them don't. They just need to be able to pull up company price lists, communicate with customers and co-workers via e-mail, research competitors' products via the Web, or create letters, memos, reports or spreadsheets.
Keeping your hardware budget under control as you grow
How can you give them what they need and save money on hardware costs? One answer is to implement a "thin client" solution. Instead of buying powerful computers to put on every desktop, you can deploy a terminal server that runs multi-user versions of the applications your employees need: word processing, spreadsheet programs, database programs, etc. Users connect to the terminal server via very low powered (and inexpensive) machines on their desktops. Multiple users can run terminal sessions simultaneously, using the applications installed on the terminal server. All processing takes place on the server.
Types of Terminal Servers and thin clients
CitrixWinframe and its successor, Metaframe, was one of the first popular terminal services packages. Windows Terminal Services, based on the Citrix technology, first appeared in a special TS edition of Windows NT 4.0. It's built into Windows 2000 servers and all versions of Windows Server 2003 except Web Edition.
Windows Terminal Services uses the Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) for communications between the server and thin clients, and also supports the Independent Computing Architecture (ICA) protocol used by Citrix.
The user's "thin" computer can be running an older operating system such as Windows 2000, 9x or even 3.11. Thin clients can also be devices specially configured for that purpose, with no hard disks and a longer life expectancy than the average PC. Some of these, such as those made by Wyse Technology, run the Windows CE operating system or Windows XPe (embedded). Others, such as the Percio Pro, run Linux and can connect to Windows NT/2000/2003 Terminal servers, Citrix, UNIX or X-Window servers. Yet another way to deploy thin client technology is via Java.
In some cases, programs can be run both locally and via
terminal services. For example, on a regular "thin" PC (and on some models of
dedicated thin client appliances), users can run their e-mail and Web browser
applications on the local machine, while using the terminal client to run
applications on the server that the local machine's hardware might not support,
such as the latest version of Microsoft Office. Other dedicated thin clients,
such as the Wyse Blazer, support the
Thin client advantages
Because the applications and data don't traverse the network but remain on the server, and because the thinnest thin clients don't have hard disks or floppy drives, there are some security advantages. The terminal server and client communicate over an encrypted connection, so you don't have to worry about data being intercepted "on the wire," and you don't have to worry about users accidentally or deliberately uploading viruses or unauthorized programs, or downloading sensitive data and taking it off-site.
Performance is another advantage of growing your network using thin client technology. An older or low powered computer that would run Microsoft Office very slowly, if at all, provides a fast interface to Office on the terminal server.
Of course, the cost savings is a primary advantage. Hardware and software costs can both be reduced through the use of thin clients, although you need to check licensing requirements for both the client access and the applications before you deploy a thin client solution.
Licensing issues in a thin client environment can be complex. For example, Windows XP Pro computers acting as terminal services clients to Windows 2000 terminal servers don't need an additional TS CAL, and any Windows XP Pro license purchased prior to April 24, 2003 is eligible for a complimentary Windows Server 2003 TS CAL. Clients using other operating systems will need to purchase TS CALs. To make matters even more confusing, there are two types of TS CALs for Server 2003 terminal servers: user CALs and device CALs.
Finally, scalability is a major advantage of the thin client solution. If your company provides each employee with a PC and installs applications locally, when those applications are updated to new versions, the hardware may have to be upgraded, too, to support the increased resources needed by the new applications.
Even if the hardware supports the new apps, there can be considerable administrative overhead involved in installing the new software on all the employees' computers (although this can be reduced somewhat by using automated installation solutions such as Windows 2000/2003 Group Policy's software installation feature or a management product such as Systems Management Server (SMS).
If your employees are using thin clients or low powered PCs to connect to a terminal server to run their productivity applications, you simply have to upgrade the software once, on the terminal server. No hardware upgrades on the clients will be necessary, because their processors and memory are not actually being used to run the applications. This makes the terminal services solution not only cost-effective, but also a very scalable solution for providing your workforce with the computing resources it needs.
Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 additional books on subjects such as the Windows 2000 and Windows 2003 MCSE exams, CompTIA Security+ exam, and TruSecure's ICSA certification.