For the past 3 years, LPS has leased 300+ computers per year for use in computer labs, teacher desks and other work stations. When the leases end, we usually keep the computers for a total life span of 5 years. But when you add up all the hard drive space included in all those computers… all the processors that are deployed… you might see that we are only using a small percentage of the total capacity of this resource. Is there a better way?
Six years ago, I visited SUN Microsystems and witnessed the SunRay, the company’s Thin Client application. It was my first experience with modern Thin Clients. I say modern, because Thin Client is actually a return to an older approach for computing. Back in the 1980’s and earlier, major computing platforms were centralized and people accessed these systems via “dumb terminals.” These terminals had nothing more than a keyboard and monitor and just enough hardware to find the server and transmit messages to the person using the device. Data center operators kept logs of processor time and disc space usage which became premiums in large companies and department managers fought each other for these scarce resources.
With the advent of the personal computer, all this became obsolete. Processors became cheap enough such that everyone could have their own… no more sharing time. Disc became cheap enough that everyone could have their own… not more sharing space. But while the old problems became a thing of the past, new problems arose… the problems we grapple with today. In LPS, our Technicians and the Computer Coaches are responsible for over 5,000 processors of varying ages and capabilities. With so many unique computer environments come all the issues of upgrades, version control, virus protection, data backup and compatibility to name a few.
These issues are precisely why many companies and organizations have returned to the Thin Client from the PC. So how does this modern Thin Client work? Like the old style, a server is deployed to service a number of people, usually 20 to 40. The server presents a Windows XP environment to dumb terminals located on the network which serve only to present an image on a monitor and provide keyboard and mouse functions. All the processing and data storage happen in the central data center and not on the desk. When the server performs for one, it performs for all. When a person logs into any Thin Client terminal, their unique desktop, programs and data are immediately available. The boot up time is almost zero because the server is already up and running. The backups, upgrades and patches are all done by a support tech on the one computer, not 20 to 40. And, if the person using Thin Client is having trouble, the support tech can log in and see the same screen without coming all the way to wherever the person having trouble is located. Additionally, modern Thin Clients can present this working environment over the web. So when at home, on a trip or at any connected location in the world, a person can log in and access all the same resources they can back in the office.
So what is the down side? The servers are expensive, although the return on investment is competitive over time. High processor applications like video, computer aided design and programming can seriously impact the demands on the processors and reduce the number of people a server can support. And everything depends on the network. If your network goes down, or if you are not able to connect, you cannot access your files or your programs.
So, where does this leave us? In my experience, Thin Client can be very powerful and with the pervasive networking we can access today, it just makes more and more sense. Imagine cutting the supported number of computers down in LPS by 3,000%. Imagine a computing environment you never need to worry about updating or backing up. Imagine computer labs that are quiet and cool because there are no heat-generating processors in the room. Imagine reducing the exposure of loss of confidential data because it never leaves the security of the central server. Imagine never having computer labs where some of the machines have trouble while others are just fine. Imagine saving money because we more efficiently use the processors and disc space we buy for educating students in LPS.
What do you think? Check out Citrix and Microsoft Terminal Services if you are interested in some research. I’d love to hear from you.
2 comment(s) so far...
By Steven Newell on
Re: To PC or not
Like Dan, I've seen thin client at work at Sun Microsystems when they were a client of the consulting firm I worked for. It was indeed reliable and robust and fit Sun's flexible workgroup culture. Sit at any workstation, at work or at home, and pull up your own ‘desktop’ with access to whatever resource you use. Sun uses thin client because it fits their working culture – and because they sell servers and thin client technology – and cost savings are likely a much smaller consideration.
Server management is also a core competency at Sun. Non-tech businesses often find limited tangible payoff with thin client. Many organizations find they’ve shifted costs and maintenance burdens without getting a net improvement in either. There are advantages for information security, because files aren’t stored locally – so there’s less risk that, say, thousands of new hire records will be lost on a laptop. And there’s less chance someone will strip a machine to sell the parts. If we're concerned primarily about security or loss/theft, thin client might be a plus... but for TCO and lower costs, we might be disappointed.
PCs, even laptops, are cheap enough now that you can get the same effect (in terms of management) by buying PCs, burning a standard configuration, locking things down reasonably, using standard app's, using centralized storage servers, and pushing out patches and updates rather than thin clients. I’d lean to using PCs as if they were thin clients -- avoid storing files locally and, if a PC goes bad, issue a new one and re-burn the old one with a fresh image -- but sticking with an XP client and whatever local app's you need. Except for purchasing cheap PCs, LPS uses most of these strategies already.
By Mason Gregg on
Re: To PC or not
A few points about PCs in the classroom: To my knowledge thin client technology would not support dedicated hardware like smartboards in a classroom. (Smart boards work with Macs and PCs and there is a Linux client too, although the version lags the most recent versions for the other two platforms).
Being a computer coach at a Middle School I see the 'extra' software teachers commonly place on their classroom PCs. In our environment teachers use software that accompanies text books from Prentice Hall and other publishers. These are legitimate tools that our staff use to accompany the basic suite of MS Office+Browser found on all LPS desktops. The 'suite' of software may be completely different from say a 6th grade Language Arts teacher to what a 8th grade science teacher uses, and everything in between. Occasionally teachers will strike out on their own and purchase/use software that others don't use. As long as software licensing is legitimate I support them. Embracing the blend of software found on a classroom PC can be challenging at times, but if it helps our teachers in their job then great.
United Streaming: Our teachers are slowly downloading a unique set of clips and accompanying items for the units they teach. They are saving them to their local harddrive and playing them from there. (To save their work they are encouraged to burn/backup a copy to a CD once they've compiled a large enough chunk of material). Their local hardrives which once seemed huge are actually being used to their full potential.
Having said all that, there may be a subset of the user community where thin client technology applies: Thin client technology may be a good solution for administrative staff (e.g. bookeepers, counselors, ESC administrators and the like), but keep them out of the classroom.
I have used Unix with X-Terminals and that works well if everyone uses the same apps and there's a need to control change - like an entire engineering department working on common projects.
I have also administrered and used Citrix-Winframe extensively in the past. It works great - even half-way around the world. A few programs that need things like audio didn't always operate properly on the client, but for many applications it can actually work better than using the app locally. With either solution there exists the advantage of storing documents on a central server and reduced/shared software licensing.
Moving to a thin client for any user would not be popular. People still view the "personal" in PC as something they own. That's a hard culture shift to change. A possible way to introduce thin client technology is to allow access to "My Documents" from home using a Winframe client.