If you are looking for a way to give remote employees and contractors secure access to your business applications and are considering a server-based solution, then you may have considered Citrix but had a hard time justifying the cost and computing overhead. One alternative solution is Genuit’s Thinworx, a Citrix-like product that provides secure Web-based access to corporate applications at significantly less cost. Thinworx provides a secure Web portal for users connected via an Intranet or the Internet. Let’s take a look at the Thinworx components and see how to install and set up a Thinworx system.

Trial version

You can get a 30-day trial version of Thinworx from the company’s Web site.

Thinworx architecture
Thinworx is composed of a four-part architecture:

  • Thinworx Controller—Manages all Portals and Application servers within a farm
  • Thinworx Application Server—Hosts applications via Windows Terminal Services
  • Thinworx Portal Server—Provides a central Web site portal for access to applications
  • Thinworx Client—This software requires a user workstation running IE 5.0 or greater

A fifth component, the Thinworx Manager, allows the system administrator to manage the Thinworx environment. The manager interacts with the Controller to provide configuration and reporting capabilities.

Like Citrix, Thinworx uses the concept of a “farm.” A farm is an implementation of Thinworx that is under the management of a single controller. Multiple application servers can exist in a farm and provide load-balancing capabilities. The controller and application servers are installed as services and are configured and managed through the manager application.

Each server component can be installed on a Windows 2000/2003 server. Thinworx can operate in an NT domain but requires the server components be installed on a Windows 2000/2003 system. For small organizations, all Thinworx components can be installed on a single server. Thinworx utilizes Windows Terminal Services as the underlying component to share applications, and Terminal Services is installed on the application server.

Launching the Thinworx CD provides a common interface to install the Thinworx components. The first component to install is the controller (Figure A).

Figure A

After the standard installation dialog boxes, a controller configuration box appears (Figure B). The minimum requirements are an internal IP address or hostname for the controller. The controller may also perform the role of the domain agent. The domain agent function is the component that interacts with the Windows domain controller to provide user authentication. Only the controller or application server can perform this role.

Figure B

The next component to install is the application server. The server that hosts the application server must also have Terminal Services installed.

Author’s note

The software required to support the application server is installed as part of the controller. If you plan to install both components on the same server, you only need to install the controller. In my evaluation of the product, I installed all four components on the same Windows 2000 box.

The manager and Web portal are the final components to install. Installation is very similar to the controller and application servers. Standard dialogs prompt for the hostname or IP address of the Thinworx Controller. The portal server also requires that the .NET framework be installed. The Thinworx AdServer, an optional subcomponent of the Portal, allows advertising space to be placed and managed on the Thinworx desktop. (I did not test or evaluate the AdServer component. It is touted as a way to generate revenue to offset the cost of running the portal.)

Thinworx configuration
Once all the components are installed, then configuration can begin. Desktop icons are provided for the manager and portal administrator applications. To get started, launch the Thinworx manager application. The Connect To Farm dialog appears. The name of the farm is entered along with the IP address, port number, username, and password to connect. A test button is included to verify connectivity prior to making the connection. Once a successful connection is verified, click Connect, and the Farm Management dialog appears (Figure C).

Figure C

The screen is divided into five tabs:

  • General tab—Provides the general details of the environment, such as the serial number and number of CALs
  • Domain tab—Provides configuration of the server acting as the Domain agent; this role is typically selected during setup of the other components but can be reassigned here
  • Application Servers—Provides configuration of the application server (or servers) in the farm and is used to assign applications and users for each server
  • Users/Groups—Provides selections of Windows groups that are assigned to applications and servers within the farm.

Let’s take a look a how an application server is configured and is assigned applications and users. Click the Application Servers tab and the configuration dialog will appear (Figure D).

Figure D

Select an application server from the drop-down list and the properties section will populate with the details of the selected server. Additional selections allow the server to be configured for internal or external connections. To place the application server online, select the Enlist With Portal(s) check box. This will allow us to assign a server to a specific portal later when we examine the portal admin application. Additional settings allow load balancing to be configured. When all settings are complete, click the apply button.

Now that we have an application server enlisted, we can add, modify, or delete applications and manage their assignment to application servers within the farm. Prior to adding applications, they must be installed and configured on the application server using the normal Terminal Services process.

The Applications tab provides configuration of the Application server(s) contained in a farm (Figure E).

Figure E

If applications are already assigned, they will appear in the drop-down, and selecting them will allow their properties to be modified. New applications are added by selecting New from the drop-down and providing configuration information such as the server name, executable path, and number of licenses.

The Users/Groups tab allows users and groups to be selected from the local domain and assigned to specific applications. After selecting the appropriate users or groups, click Apply. When you return to the Applications tab, you should now see Users/Groups listed as assigned to the application.

The final step is to configure the portal gateways. This is accomplished through the portal administrator tool. The portal tool is similar in function to the manager application. Multiple gateways can be created, each with its own authentication settings for the particular environment. Internally, Windows authentication may be acceptable, but, for an external connection, you may wish to employ something tighter. Thinworx supports Windows, RSA, and mixed authentication.

The gateways are identified by a gateway ID number. To create a new gateway, select New and enter the internal or external URL and the desired authentication mode. A virtual directory is created, called “Thinworx,” which points to the portal Web content. You can then direct your users to the Thinworx virtual directory or launch IIS and create your own Web site that points to the content. Click Save and then Close and the portal is now created (Figure F).

Figure F

The first time a user enters the portal, they are required to load a small client program. After that, they are simply presented with a logon screen (Figure G).

Figure G

Upon a successful logon, the Thinworx desktop appears, allowing individual applications or a desktop to be selected (Figure H). The user selects the application or desktop and begins working.

Figure H

Thinworx licensing
Since Thinworx relies on Windows Terminal Services as the underlying component to share applications, it requires that you obtain and manage all the licenses required to run Terminal Services for the number of users you plan to support. In addition, Thinworx requires its own licensing. Table A outlines some of the basic Thinworx pricing structure. Contact Genuit directly for more detailed pricing information.

Table A
Thinworx Starter Kit System License with 5 CAL’s $1,450
Thinworx Starter Kit System License with 100 CAL’s $17,055
THINGUARD Annual Software Subscription $30 US (per CAL)

End sum
I found Thinworx to be extremely easy to install and configure. The trial package includes an administration guide that clearly documents the installation and setup of the Thinworx environment. During my evaluation, I spoke with David Donnelly, software development manager for Thinworx, and he indicated that Thinworx is not trying to take over the Citrix world, but that Thinworx provides the most important features of server-based computing at a more attractive price than Citrix. He also mentioned that the next release of Thinworx would include a desktop client in addition to the current Web client.

If the price and overhead of Citrix has you running away from server-based computing, you may just want to give Thinworx a try.