Thin clients to the rescue

IT solutions in action

Project: Citywide thin-client computer network

Agency: Dayton, Ohio

Partners: Wyse Technology Inc. and Dayton IT Department

Goal: Replace and update the city's antiquated computer and IT infrastructure.

Obstacles: Budget constraints meant system management could not be labor intensive.

Solution: The city chose a thin-client solution, centralizing data and applications.

Payoff: A five-person IT staff can maintain the city's 2,200 desktops. Application maintenance and backup of all employee data are done at the server level.

When Dayton, Ohio, began preparing for the year 2000 date rollover, the city's continued use of old mainframe systems with monochrome terminals turned out to be a blessing.

Because the city had never adopted today's common network scheme, desktop PCs connected by a network, it was easier to adopt a lesser-known emerging technology.

For its first IT overhaul in decades, Dayton officials eschewed a conventional networked PC system in favor of a thin-client scheme, said William Hill, the city's CIO.

With the thin-client system, most of the city's 2,200 workers have desktop computers that have no hard drives and almost no memory. All applications ? from word processing to complex payroll and tax applications ? run on network servers.

Thin clients have many advantages over PCs, one of the most important being ease of management, Hill said. Of the 36 people on his staff, five handle all of the city's 2,220 desktops.

"If I had PCs, I'd need another nine to 11 people, and I can't afford them," Hill said. "When we originally rolled out the system, we figured we'd save the city $2 million to $3 million, right out of the chute."

MODE OF OPERATION

Dayton officials chose thin-client technology from Wyse Technology Inc. of San Jose, Calif., to be the heart of the system.

Migrating directly from antiquated mainframe systems to thin computing, and never implementing a PC network, is not uncommon among Wyse's customers, said Jeff McNaught, vice president of marketing operations. Technologically speaking, Dayton leapt forward multiple generations for the project, but the city's IT staff did not have to start entirely from scratch.

"Dayton had data and telephone networks that were independent from one another," McNaught said. "Those two networks were fused and improved, and the resulting network was capable of supporting everything that needed to be done with thin computing."

Thin computing requires much less bandwidth than other computing environments, McNaught said.
Receiving an e-mail with a 2MB PowerPoint presentation via a conventional network entails downloading the file to a PC so it can be opened locally.

"You've used about 2MB of bandwidth to get that PowerPoint," McNaught said. "In the thin-computing architecture, there's still a device in front of you, and there's still a server. But when I send you that 2MB PowerPoint file and it comes up on Outlook, what you're seeing is simply the screen information from Outlook. It's not the Outlook program running at your desk; it's running at the server."

Similarly, the PowerPoint presentation is not downloaded to the thin client but is opened at the server. The server sends only screen images of the slides to the thin-client desktop.

Because the screen images are typically between 20K and 40K, the bandwidth requirement is a fraction of what it would be for a PC network.

But one of the biggest boons of the system is its inherent ability to ensure that applications are standardized from desktop to desktop and department to department, and to simplify software updates and licensing. It is all done at the server level.

In Dayton, small ad hoc networks of PCs had sprung up among the city's departments. The PCs and networks ran various flavors of operating systems and applications, and every flavor of word processor from Microsoft Word to WordStar. Even when departments used the same application, most often they were running different versions of it.

"What drove us nuts was not only could these people not talk to each other, but we had all these variations out there," Hill said. "And they couldn't even share files pulled off [of floppy disks]. The files were unreadable from system to system because of different operating systems or different versions of the application."

Initially, the city plugged PCs into its new network, but the machines quickly fell out of sync with one another.

"We did a test pilot section of the city, one small bureau within a department, to see how thin client worked," Hill said. "We liked it, and we could see some great advantages. We also realized we weren't fighting everybody as hard as we heard can happen when adopting thin client, because our people didn't have anything but an old green screen until then."

THE POWER OF FLEXIBILITY

Roughly 2,200 employees are on the system today, and every application they use runs over Metaframes, software that lets a server act as an application service provider over the Internet or network connection.
The city has seven published servers running applications such as the ArcMap geographical information systems software, and 22 published servers for desktop services such as imaging, streaming video, and Internet and intranet access.

Most employees work on thin-client devices, but even those who have PCs operate almost exclusively operate in thin sessions.

All of the city's data is on storage area networks and network-attached storage.

"You have your own drive, but instead of a C drive, it's an H drive," Hill said. "Your H drive is a slice of all those bigger drives, and the advantage is that no matter where you are in the city, in any of our 123 buildings, if you sit down at any desktop and log on, you get all of your information. Every file you have is available to you."

That flexibility has aided in police investigations. Now, no matter where in the city detectives are, they have access to all of their data and applications, including mugshots, incident-based reporting systems and a reports management system that houses more than 55 years of data.

With all its advantages, however, a thin-client architecture also presents its own set of challenges, said Noah Wasmer of Centered Networks Inc., an Oakland, Calif., company that provides thin-client solutions for small to midsize organizations.

In any thin-client project, Wasmer recommends working with people who understand the server-based computing model. Integrators also need to understand that building redundancy into networks is critical.

"Your entire environment is residing in one central place," he said. "While that has benefits, you need to make sure that you have redundancies for every possible weak point, so you can ensure the uptime and performance you expect."

Staff Writer Doug Beizer can be reached at dbeizer@postnewsweektech.com.

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