Can you be too thin?

Thin clients aren't for everyone, but if you decide to make the leap, here are some issues to consider

You remember diskless computers, right? They were the hot new idea a decade ago, but for whatever reason, they did not make a significant impact among most government users. But that’s changing. These days, computers without local data storage are called thin clients, and they’re getting a lot of attention from agencies and departments newly concerned about security. Originally, the diskless PC concept was intended to save money. If you didn’t need floppy or hard disks, the computer would cost less. But with yesterday’s slower networks, performance wasn’t great. And not everything worked right.

A lot has changed. Today’s thin clients cost about the same as PCs at a discount store. Networks are faster, and more software works well on those machines. Finally, thin clients solve a lot of security problems.

What's a thin client?
Before you can decide whether to move your computing environment to thin clients, you should know what one is. In the simplest terms, thin clients are computers without local storage. In some ways, a thin client is similar to the terminals attached to mainframes back in the day. Thin clients can act as terminals, but they’re not the same thing.

To be a thin client, the device must have its own memory and processing capability, and it must have an operating system. Thin clients usually boot from their flash memory or a server elsewhere on the network. The operating software is typically Linux, Microsoft Windows CE or Windows XP Embedded. Applications reside on a central server, which also holds all data and handles other tasks that applications need. Thin clients can do nearly every task for which you might use a stand-alone PC. But thin clients cannot perform some functions or run certain applications.

In the past, thin clients were significantly less expensive than PCs. The competitive nature of the PC marketplace, however, has nearly erased that price difference. Thin clients now yield most of their savings through reduced management costs. For example, with thin clients, you don’t need to run antivirus or anti-spyware software, and you can manage everything centrally. In addition, because thin clients are much simpler and have fewer moving parts, repair costs are likely to be less. But that’s not always true.

Reasons to like thin
“Our main consideration for going to a thin-client environment was two things,” said Garrett Martin, IT director for Canyonlands Community Health Care, a federally funded provider. “It’s very easy to administer a thin-client environment because they don’t require individual administration. The boxes are not programmable by the user. Everything is done from a central terminal server.”

The second reason is security, Martin said. “Because of the requirements of [the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996], we’re moving into electronic patient records,” he said. “The thin-client environment is a more secure environment to make sure that unauthorized access is kept to a minimum.”

For most government users, security is a major concern. The Defense Department has already begun requiring thin-client environments at many commands, and other agencies are following suit to meet their security requirements. The reason is simple: Without local storage, there’s no risk of infection by worms, viruses or Trojan horses; without removable storage, there’s no way to steal data by writing it to a CD-ROM or removable USB drive.

Although security is a significant catalyst for renewed interest in thin clients, the budget arguments are also convincing. You will no longer save a lot of money on the initial acquisition, but you will find that the life cycle costs can be a lot less. Because of security requirements, maintaining a single PC in government agencies can cost as much as $5,000 to $6,000 annually, said Ricardo Antuna, vice president of product line marketing at Wyse Technology, a major supplier of thin clients to the government. “In the case of thin clients, those costs are dramatically reduced.”

In addition to reduced management costs, you can also save money on software licensing because thin clients run centrally located applications and restrict the number of people who use them simultaneously. Your agency wouldn’t need to buy a copy of Microsoft Office, for example, for every user when only a limited number would use it at one time.

Reasons not to like thin
Thin clients are not a boon to everyone, however. The biggest issue is that not all software will work in thin-client environments. Though Microsoft Terminal Server and Citrix Systems’ Citrix Access Platform can work with many applications, many others require a dedicated PC. For example, Martin said that his financial accounting package won’t work with Microsoft Terminal Server.

The other issue is that thin clients don’t offer some functions you might want. “We’d like to have the ability to burn a CD,” said Jackie Viar, IT director for Amherst County, Va. Viar added that she found it nearly impossible to get Lotus Notes to work with the thin clients the county installed. Many users have problems with remote printing, and others note that local printing sometimes requires choosing a printer from a small list.

In addition, getting your existing applications to work with thin clients can be complex and require expert services.

To exacerbate the situation, you might find that your service and support are in the hands of a reseller who might not appreciate your agency’s needs. You could become unable to perform certain tasks or persuade the reseller to do anything about it.

Choosing a thin solution
Once you make the decision to move to thin-client computing, you need to consider several factors, including manufacturers, operating systems, computing performance and applications. You can’t easily create a thin-client environment with machines from several different manufacturers. “Each vendor has software management utilities for maintaining and upgrading [operating systems] on their own thin client,” said Chris Fleck, vice president of platform development at Citrix. Thin-client management utilities can only work with equipment from the same company.

The good news is that few differences exist among thin-client brands. Each vendor offers a range of products and services that will fit the needs of nearly every user. The trick is getting the right equipment and capabilities from whichever vendor you select.

For most agencies and departments, the first step toward implementing thin clients will likely be choosing the operating system for the client machines. Fleck said the most common choice for thin-client operating systems is Microsoft Windows CE, which is similar to the operating software for some electronic handheld devices.

“Other options are modified versions of Linux and XP Embedded which provides more functionality,” Fleck said, adding that they are more costly and have more maintenance requirements. He said some manufacturers will let you load the operating software from the terminal server. “Neoware is beginning to offer streaming XP Embedded,” Fleck said. “This avoids maintenance problems and makes it less expensive.”

If you’re using Citrix’s product, the choice of the operating system for the thin clients is independent of the operating system on the Citrix server. Citrix provides operating software for most thin clients.

Peripheral issues
For some agencies, the choice could come down to a selection of clients that support the peripherals they need. For example, specialized printing needs could restrict thin-client options because of the limited printer choices available to some operating systems and client hardware. Likewise, not many thin clients support remote scanning or specialized monitors. And if your thin-client requirement includes using an older mainframe application, you’ll need a solution that supports its requirements.

Mainframe terminal emulation is available in some thin-client models from most manufacturers. If terminal emulation is critical to your needs, however, you should confirm that the thin-client hardware you choose will support the flavor of terminal emulation you use. Insist that the manufacturer demonstrate the capabilities you need before you buy the product.

Security
Although each vendor can provide a number of security options for at least some of their thin clients, not all thin clients will support the same security peripherals. You will need to determine that the thin client you’re considering works with the authentication you need, whether it’s a fingerprint reader, smart card reader or something else. You’ll also need to make sure you’re comfortable with the integration of the thin-client hardware with your security.

Legacy support
Don’t forget to consider the connections between the thin clients and other portions of your enterprise, said Michael Oliva, director of worldwide marketing at thin-client vendor Computer Lab International. “Legacy application servers? Unix servers and mainframes? Typically you’d use terminal emulation,” he said. “Do I need to display Windows applications? Do I want to access the Internet?”

Likewise, it’s important to make sure you know what your connection pathway will be, Oliva said. “How do you hook to the server? With a legacy serial connection? Ethernet? Twinax or coax? Do you need wireless support? Do you need specialized connectivity such as token ring?” Oliva said the answers to those questions will quickly drive you to a decision.

Connectivity
Not all thin clients will support all media formats. Every company supports Ethernet, and most will support serial communications. But after that, it can get less certain. You’ll need to make sure that the specific models you need will support the communications medium that you require.

Fitting into your enviroment
Of course, there are other factors, including the physical environment of the thin client. “What do you need on the desktop?” Oliva asks. He said the form can be critical for some applications. “Some thin clients can hang on the back of a monitor or on a wall or go under a desk,” he said, adding that security might also play a role because it’s harder to steal a thin client screwed into the wall.

You can create a mixed network if you need to. Microsoft Terminal Server and Citrix Access Platform will work with regular PCs and will support applications and peripherals that might not work with thin clients. However, you would have to administer those machines while keeping track of their antivirus software, firewalls, upgrades and user efforts to circumvent security. Clearly, there’s no simple answer to whether you should try to move your agency in the direction of thin-client computing. Unlike many other IT purchasing choices, adopting thin clients is one that is difficult to undo, so we recommend a thorough analysis of your needs. After that, it makes sense to explore the differences among thin-client solutions.

Rash is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance journalist who has been covering technology since the late 1970s. He can be reached at wayne@rash.org.

5 steps to a thin dietInformation technology managers agree that agency officials should carefully study their choices before committing to a thin-client environment. Jackie Viar, IT director for Amherst County, Va., suggests these steps:

  • Check the performance of the thin-client unit. Make sure it actually does what the vendor promises before you buy.

  • Test the client with all peripherals to confirm dependability.

  • Check for proprietary hardware and make sure it is compatible with your existing environment.

  • Make sure your thin client is compatible with the software you plan to use.

  • Make sure the thin client will work in the environment in which you plan to use it. Will it be used daily? Will customers use it? Will it be in a specialized environment? Client hardware that’s under stress can prove to be unreliable.

— Wayne Rash

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