John Steele isn’t the first CIO to face a gutted technology budget coupled with system-wide pressure to provide more and greater applications and services. Likewise, his solution to implement thin clients as part of the server-based computing infrastructure in the school system for which he works is not as unique as it once was.
It is, however, still new enough to raise eyebrows in an industry that, overall, thinks of thin as obsolete. However, industry watchers say thin is coming back, and in a big way. “It makes so much sense,” said Matt Wrabley, Executive Vice President of Sales for Neoware Systems, a company that now has thousands of thin client customers. “It gives an IT department so much more control.”
The kind of control the average IT department is grasping at involves how to provide the expected level of services in the face of staff reductions, increasing data privacy, and security issues, and how to get more bang out of fewer technology bucks. To regain control over these areas, and others, more IT departments are turning to thin clients.
The average user would be hard-pressed to distinguish a thin client from a PC. Only the thin workstation sits on top of the desk. All that is required for server-based thin client computing to be successful is an operating system that supports thin clients' centralized application and client-management software, and an IT staff knowledgeable enough to run the network.
The growth rate in thin clients—workstations that provide no local storage in business environments—will continue to grow this decade, according to an International Data Corp. (IDC) study about thin clients in the enterprise. About 3.4 million enterprise thin clients will ship worldwide in 2007, more than double the estimated 1.5 million that shipped last year, the study said.
That growth indicates a number of obstacles are being overcome, the greatest of which is acceptance in the IT department. Most veteran techs refer to thin clients as something they worked with early in their careers, at a time when mainframes dominated the industry and end users didn’t have full computers in their cubes. Thin, in those days, also meant “slow.” By the by, PC-based networks and an industry driven need to constantly “upgrade” soon made thin clients obsolete.
Other obstacles to overcome include end users' resistance to losing their hard drives and a persistent belief on the part of IT managers that performance will suffer in a server-based network.
However, Steele, CIO for the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board, one of the largest and fastest growing school districts in Canada, said he had other issues to concern him. Budget cuts meant that technology updates were at a standstill and had been for years. This meant the district was hanging onto equipment and software past its period of obsolescence, often to the point that vendors and manufacturers were no longer offering support. Breakdowns were becoming more frequent and repair and maintenance costs were on the rise. “There were constant disruptions,” Steele recalled.
With about 88,000 students in 134 schools, in addition to administration and other district departments, these disruptions cost not only money but lost educational time. “We just couldn’t afford to send out a tech every time there was a breakdown,” Steele recalled.
The initial solution was to take part in a pilot project that placed Citrix servers within each classroom. In 2001, major metaframe farms were deployed and, in February, the school district standardized on Neoware thin client appliances as part of the server-based computing infrastructure in Dufferin-Peel’s secondary schools.
Dufferin-Peel purchased Neoware's thin client appliances through IBM, which sells Neoware products as part of a strategic sales and marketing alliance between the two companies, according to a Neoware press release. “IBM customers can purchase Neoware products from IBM directly or from IBM Business Partners, gaining the benefits of Neoware's products at the same time that they purchase other IBM hardware, software and services,” the press release said.
The improvements have been dramatic. Legacy systems are no longer on the “need to be replaced” list because they have been reconfigured as thin clients. “Every thin client we got in 1998 is running perfectly,” Steele said. Repair and maintenance costs have dropped dramatically, as have the number of disruptions. Applications are all located on the central server, which greatly simplifies upgrades. The latest and best applications and operating systems function just fine on thin clients—even on old workstations, and there are Gig E connections at each site.
And with no moving parts, thin clients are less susceptible to end user issues that are unique to schools, Steele said. “They’ll steal memory out of them, they’ll stuff sandwiches into the CD drives, they’ll do all kinds of silly things,” Steele said. “They can’t do that with thin clients.”
One of the greatest benefits of all, Steele said, is there are NO viruses.
The centralized management capability is due, in large part, to Neoware's ezRemote Manager software. This implementation has helped alleviate the number of required technician visits throughout the district because any required technical administration has been done at the server level, rather than on each desktop.
Steele said there are some drawbacks with thin clients. Multimedia-rich applications do not run well on thin clients. “You can run them to a certain extent but not with the same performance you would see if the application were being run locally,” he said. However, Steele quickly added that he was confident Citrix would overcome this shortcoming, much as it had the bandwidth and other issues that once plagued thin technology.
The School District also has plans to deploy Neoware thin client appliances in the administrative areas in the schools and the central Board Offices, according to a Neoware press release.
For now, schools such as Dufferin-Peel and governmental agencies are the most likely customers for companies like Neoware, but Wrabley said that is quickly changing as other industries begin to catch on to the benefits of thin technology. “People in those environments already understand the benefits of running applications from the server,” Wrabley explained. "Other industries are just as likely to benefit and they’ll adopt thin clients.”