Web extra: Two thin-client tales — one bad, one good

Jackie Viar says she's about had it with her thin-client installation. Although, the thin clients she chose cost less than PCs, they have yet to meet her needs. In addition, she has emerging requirements that the thin clients can't meet. Viar, information technology director for Amherst County, Va., said she's seriously considering buying networked PCs to replace the thin clients.

According to Viar, thin clients have two problems. First, the special keyboards the county treasurer's office need for use with the IBM AS/400 midrange computer system are unreliable so she's had to stock spare keyboards to keep the system running, even though her thin clients are covered by a maintenance contract.

"We use them as cash registers," Viar said, adding that the collection of revenue is a daily task. She said that although the thin clients have also failed on occasion, the keyboards are the biggest problem.

Adding to the annoyances is the difficulty in running Microsoft Windows programs, especially Lotus Notes, on the thin clients. She said the software works at times, but most employees have to find other ways of checking their e-mail and using Notes. Viar added that standard PCs in the same offices can handle both tasks easily, which is why she's thinking of switching to networked PCs.

On the other hand, Garrett Martin, director of IT for the federally funded Canyonlands Community Health Care, wouldn’t give up his thin clients. Martin said he's responsible for offices located throughout Arizona. Reaching them for upgrades or management could mean hours of driving. In addition, his users have little computer training and his agency can't afford to hire enough IT managers to cover every office.

"It's very easy to administer a thin-client environment because they don't require individual administration," Martin said. "The boxes are not programmable by the user. Everything is done from a central terminal server."

The biggest problem he's encountered so far is that the thin clients he chose don't support scanners. Martin said he's thinking of buying a different brand of thin client that will support scanners, but he won't consider PCs because they would not work in his user environment.

Both IT directors agree that the most important rule when selecting the right thin client for your organization is to ensure that the products are supported. In Viar's case, the reseller failed to deliver the promised hardware support and Lotus Notes integration. In Martin's case, he's handling the support himself with help from the manufacturer. So far, that arrangement is working.

Also, administrators should make sure they have an upgrade path, Viar said. Users in her organization recently discovered a need to create CDs, but given the thin-client setup, they cannot easily meet that need.

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