What I've Learned about Thin Client Computing

Whether the user machine is a thin client device or not, this desktop computing model is the future.

In Pasco County, Fla., thin clients have been a fixture in the user environment for a decade. IT initially bought into the thin-client computing model as it addressed security and management challenges arising out of the desktop PC movement. It was not then nor is it now blinded by the thin-client concept, and has never deployed thin clients universally. Users get the best device for their needs, be that a PC, laptop or, in some cases, a Panasonic Toughbook, says Kristine Johnson, a technical architect who has been with the County for 15 years. In this interview with contributing writer Beth Schultz, Johnson reflects on …

WHERE THIN CLIENTS WORK: I've found thin clients are well-suited for situations where you have a lot of people doing one thing and it's not really specialized.

We use thin-client devices in certain circumstances, such as at kiosks. For example, we use them in our human resources area where folks come in to apply for jobs. We want them to get access to the job application in a secure manner. That's a perfect application for a thin client. They're also the choice at some of our waste water treatment plants and other environmentally hostile locations because they have no moving parts. We also still have plenty of workers who only need Microsoft Office-type applications, and thin clients are great for them.

WHERE IT GETS DICEY: Whenever there's anything specialized, a little hardware gizmo like a card reader or receipt printer, for example, there's always going to be a little bit of a question about whether that piece of hardware is going to work in the thin-client environment. Almost always the vendor who comes in and sells you that solution has tested it with PCs but has not always, in fact usually not, tested it in a thin-client computing environment. So sometimes the problem can be a support issue. And while with some effort you can get it to work, if you're only going to deploy it to four, five or six people, sometimes the amount of work to get it set up really outweighs the value. In those cases, we'd just as soon give people PCs.

A MATTER OF PRINCIPLE: Over the years our number of thin-client devices has dropped off, but we still actively consider them and are using the principals of thin-client computing.

MARKET EVOLUTION: When we first started, thin-client devices were much less expensive than PCs. But now you can buy PCs and even laptops very inexpensively. So we're moving more away from the specialized thin-client devices, but still using the principals of thin-client computing — meaning, centralized management and control. So through Citrix—we use Citrix quite heavily—we're deploying to a personal-computing device rather than a specialized thin-client device. That way, we have the best of both worlds.

TWO-IN-ONE BENEFIT: If users are using one of our mass-deployed, general countywide applications, they can get that through Citrix and we get the centralized control and management. But if a user needs something that's very specific, the user still has a PC available for loading that software, running that application locally and getting the benefits of both.

ALL FOR ONE OR NONE FOR ALL? We definitely think there is no one size that fits all. That's probably the biggest lesson that we learned. There's no substitute for analyzing user requirements, and picking the right tool for the job.

REPLACEMENT CYCLE: Thin clients tend to last a long time. They don't have a lot of moving parts; they don't have a hard drive. Last year we still had some of our original thin clients from 2000 and 2001 that we had to replace. What had happened is the display resolution on those really wasn't up to the job of the newer operating systems — the higher color depth and higher screen resolutions and refresh rates. They were working right along until we had some applications deployed that use those higher color resolutions and then we found that we had to replace them. But that's one of the pitfalls. They actually lasted too long.

ACCOUNTING FOR OLD THIN CLIENTS: When you're using a technology that's practically 10 years old, you have to make sure you understand that you could run into a situation where there would be a new application that you want to put on somebody's desk and it might not work.

COST: If you look at a technology research report, it'll say that thin-client computing, from a TCO perspective, is slightly less expensive than PCs. You're basically making trade-offs. You might have some less costly equipment on the user desktop, but more costly equipment back in the data center. So we've found it's almost a wash but that the real benefit is in improved productivity and security.

What do you know now that you wish you'd known then? Share your tales here or contact Beth Schultz, at bschultz5824@gmail.com.

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