When TechRepublic member Ron Nath wanted to save his small company big bucks, he blended low-cost software, used laptops, and thin client technology into an efficient, effective system that’s easy to support and inexpensive to maintain.

The 100 or so employees at Nath’s company work on used laptops, running only a minimal Linux installation and free remote-control software. To run business-productivity applications, they connect to both Linux and Windows 2000 application servers via the Internet and the remote-control software.

According to Nath, this solution saves his company thousands of dollars in equipment and software licensing per user. Here’s how they’re doing it.

Ad hoc yet reliable thin client
For starters, Nath converted all of his company’s servers over to Linux, except for one Windows 2000 server used for running legacy Windows applications. There was nothing too unusual about this move, as Linux has been a favorite money saver with network administrators for years, and this switch was an obvious and easy way to for his company to cut costs, Nath said. The unique part of this system is Nath’s approach to his company’s laptops.

On each laptop, Nath installed Tiny Linux (with basic networking for connecting to the company network), a dial-up connection for access when away from the office, a minimal X server, and a VNC client.

Using this configuration, end users connect to a virtual desktop on the company’s application servers, which all run VNC server. From here, the users have access to any application they need, mainly StarOffice.

“This way, our users can connect to their [virtual] desktop from anywhere in the company, at home, or on the road, as long as an Internet connection is available,” Nath said.

“The VNC client provides a nice stateless connection to a VNC server session running on our Win2K server and Linux applications server,” Nath said. Each user has accounts on both servers in case they need to run the legacy Windows applications.

Because neither business applications nor user data are stored on the laptops, if the machines break or are stolen, no company information is lost.

For the few times when employees do need a full “fat” client on their machine, the company has several Windows 2000 Professional laptops that employees can take to trade shows, conferences, or wherever.

Savings really add up
Used laptops and low-cost or free software make for a powerful savings combination.Nath figures his company saves a little over $1,300 per user, per year (Figure A).

Figure A

This is how he figures it:

  • $200 per used laptop vs. $2,000 for desktop with monitor and support over a four-year period
  • $0 vs. $300 for client operating system and Office suite licenses for a three-year upgrade cycle
  • Five hours per user, per year vs. 30 hours per user, per year, at $25 per hour, due to the central administration and maintenance of the software only on the servers

“We didn’t even factor in increased employee productivity since our employees have less downtime,” Nath said. He includes downtime savings from:

  • The inability of users to download unauthorized programs because the programs are on the server, not the laptop.
  • The wasted time spent visiting non-work-related Web sites because the browser and related visited site lists are on the server for inspection.
  • Having replacement laptops available immediately if a malfunction occurs.

“For our company of 100 or so employees, this really adds up,” Nath said about all of the cost savings.

Nath also said that this new arrangement is finding support from end users, because the company is so pleased with the cost savings that it is sharing those savings with its employees.

“They are more than happy to get some extra cash around the holidays as a trade-off for not having the typical fat-client Windows PC setup,” Nath said.

Will this work for you?
This ad hoc thin client solution works well for Nath’s company, but as with any significant deviation from standard hardware and software configurations, IT pros need to carefully examine the organization’s individual situation. Many cost-saving measures look good in the short term but fail to produce the expected results once training and additional support costs are factored in.

Another potential problem inherent in Nath’s solution is its atypical design. Nath is intimately familiar with the way this network/client relationship is configured and used, and has successfully resolved the numerous challenges presented by this specific combination of hardware and software.

But you’d have to wonder: What happens to the company if Nath leaves?

Also, some of Nath’s savings may disappear if his company upgrades to StarOffice 6.0. Sun plans to charge for licenses for the newer release. Analysts from Gartner say that the volume-pricing cost may only be $25 to $75 per license, but that is still significantly less than for the Microsoft Office suite.

Nath said that instead of upgrading StarOffice, he is looking at OpenOffice, another free distribution to get around additional cost for now.

If these issues aren’t a concern for your organization, then Nath’s suggestion could save your organization a bundle.

“I hope this inspires others to try this solution as a small pilot project to verify its feasibility and practicality,” Nath said. “I’m not saying it will work for everyone, but it is worth checking out.”

Have you made your own thin client network?

Many IT pros have been talking about the return to thin client technologies and how these technologies hold the promise of reduced maintenance and support costs. Has your organization tried to do this on its own? Does it work? Have you seen the expected savings? Let us know in the discussion below.