New reasons to get slim

Two years ago, the General Services Administration Public Buildings Service's New England region assembled its employees in a town hall meeting. Such get-togethers, aimed at uncovering problems and soliciting suggestions, are not unusual for the agency.

But as Jim LeVerso, chief information officer of the region, listened to the proceedings, it occurred to him that this meeting was different. In the past, employees lobbied the administration to allow them to do more work away from the office. "This time, it was the administration that was saying, 'We want you to telecommute. Tell us what we need to do to make that possible,'" LeVerso said.

Telecommuting appears to be changing from merely a convenience for workers to a strategic goal for some agencies. Similarly, the technology that LeVerso chose to enable the telecommuting program — server-based computing (SBC, also called thin-client computing) — is taking on a more important role.

In SBC, software applications — from word processing programs to accounting applications — run centrally on a server, and only the user interface and necessary files and data are transmitted to users' PCs or other Web- connected devices. This approach makes it an effective platform for telecommuting. SBC backers say that its approach also makes it well-suited for two new post-Sept. 11 priorities: enabling more data sharing by agencies and helping agencies to continue running in case disaster strikes.

Catching On

SBC has been available for several years, but David Friedlander, an industry analyst with Giga Information Group Inc., said that the biggest change in government as well as commercial usage is the increase in the size of installations.

"During the past two years, SBC has been moving steadily upstream from its start as a workgroup solution to enterprisewide deployments," he said. He pointed out that more robust management tools and performance enhancements have encouraged agencies with large numbers of users, such as the GSA Public Buildings Service, to consider SBC.

Before choosing an SBC solution, LeVerso and his colleagues laid out the requirements for the future telecommuting program. A good system would enable employees to:

n Access all applications from any PC.

n Run applications at home, on the road or at a client site, even if it meant connecting to the office server via low-speed dial-up lines.

n Start work at one location and pick up where they left off at a different location with no loss of data.

It was already a tall order when GSA officials added, "'Figure out how to make it happen. And by the way, we can't offer you any additional resources or people,'" LeVerso said.

Unfortunately, the office's applications were too resource-intensive to run efficiently on a wide-area network. The plan might work if information technology administrators paid a lot of attention to network resources and required employees to use only high-bandwidth lines. But that did not fit the telecommuting program's "anywhere with any connection" requirements.

What did fit the bill was SBC technology that LeVerso had seen demonstrated by Citrix Systems Inc. of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. With Citrix MetaFrame now installed in their data center, 300 employees of the Public Buildings Service's New England region and some users at the other regions can launch applications from anywhere, just as they would if the applications ran on their PC or a local-area network — by clicking on an icon.

That mouse click launches MetaFrame software on the server, which runs the business application the user wants to access and manages the communications session. To users — even those on a dial-up connection from home — the application runs about as fast as it would on a LAN-attached PC, LeVerso said.

The 128-bit encryption Secure Sockets Layer protocol is used to protect communication between the client and server. And because each user's files are maintained on the server, the machine the employee happens to be using is irrelevant, as long as it can connect to the application server via the Internet or a network.

"For years, the goal of IT was to make computing a utility, like switching on a light," LeVerso said. "With this architecture, I think we finally did it."

New Drivers

Don Leckrone, director of Defense Department accounts at Santa Cruz, Calif.-based Tarantella Inc., sees two new security concerns pushing federal agencies to consider SBC.

The first is disaster recovery. Users who must evacuate buildings can simply go to PCs in other offices and pick up where they were interrupted. And the decentralized nature of the Internet, built that way to withstand an attack, means the network will always be available. Also, the server, the most vulnerable component of SBC, can be protected easily through standard backup practices such as mirroring, which involves creating a replica of the primary system at another site.

Second, new homeland security procedures require new types of collaboration. "Many people are starting to have to work on applications that their agencies don't own," Leckrone said. SBC is an easy way to authorize new users without having to load software on their PCs or even take into account the operating system they are using.

Another driver is the increased popularity of Web portals.

"Workers want more consolidated and personalized access to all their applications," Friedlander said.

In fact, consolidated access to applications is one reason that officials at the Interior Department's National Business Center (NBC) decided to use Citrix MetaFrame to develop an SBC solution for financial reporting.

"We provide a single point of entry to all our applications through a Web page," said Mike Sciortino, a system manager at NBC. That approach "makes it very easy for our users to configure their workstations and connect to the system."

Interior has used MetaFrame since June 2000 to provide access to financial reporting software and other applications, including Microsoft Excel and a text editor. About 250 people use the system.

Sciortino said that before moving to SBC architecture, Interior had problems with large amounts of data clogging its network. As a result, users suffered with poor performance connections and corrupted databases.

Now that program files and data files are centrally located on two side-by-side servers, the applications run more smoothly and data corruption does not occur, he said.

Another advantage of SBC, according to Sciortino, is that software upgrades are much easier to manage. Before using MetaFrame, NBC would have to install full upgrades on each PC that accessed the system and struggle with the inevitable compatibility problems. Now software upgrades only have to be installed on the central application server. As soon as users log off and back on, they're working with the latest version.

SBC may be the right technology at the right time. Security considerations, new collaboration requirements and budgetary constraints are forcing agencies to seek new ways to launch and manage applications.

SBC, which is finally becoming enterprise-ready, may be one solution to those problems.

Stevens is a freelance journalist who has written about IT since 1982.

***

Three other perks The primary advantages of server-based computing (SBC) are reduced costs, easier administration and increased security. But there are other advantages, according to Christa Anderson, author of "The Definitive Guide to Citrix MetaFrame XP." According to her: * SBC helps bring more people into the fold. Many agencies have employees who use non-Microsoft Corp. Windows operating systems on their computers, primarily the Apple Computer Inc. Mac OS or Linux. Those users usually have to move to a Windows machine to access the agency's enterprise applications. SBC automatically extends the applications to all platforms. * SBC delays hardware upgrades. "A hidden cost in any software upgrade is the cost of replacing all the hardware [that] no longer works well with the new application," Anderson said. SBC removes hardware considerations from any upgrade project. * SBC ensures more efficient use of computing resources. For resource-intensive applications, SBC architecture can provide more bang for the buck. An application accessed by, say, five people on a server uses less memory and processing power than the total resources for the same application run on five separate PCs, Anderson said.

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