Facing big budget cuts, county turns to thin clients, SaaS

Milwaukee County's CIO plans to propose replacing some 4,500 desktops with thin clients beginning next year. The big step in some ways is forced by a possible $2 million cut in the county's IT budget.

Like many state and local governments, this Wisconsin county is seeing difficult times. Its proposed budget for 2010, which starts Jan. 1, would require cutting nearly 400 IT and other jobs, reducing the county's overall workforce to 5,256 people. Tensions over the budget appear to be very high; one local TV station showed a film clip of a scuffle that occurred this week during a protest of the cuts.

Milwaukee County CIO Dennis John he will present to a budget committee next week a $16 million 2010 budget proposal for his department that includes a move to use thin clients and to outsource mainframe personnel.

Previous cuts across government agencies have made it difficult to fund the replacement of old PCs, The county is supposed to be on a five-year replacement cycle, but a lack of funding has some users running PCs that are six- and seven-years-old, said John.

To keep to the five-year replacement schedule, the county would have to replace 900 PCs a year at a cost of $1,000 per machine. But the best the county can afford now is 150 new PCs a year. "We have been neglecting our PC replacement program dramatically," John said. Moving to thin clients would save the county more than $400,000 over five years, he estimated. "It's such a significant issue for us."

The county has funded replacement PCs out of its operational budget, but is planning to finance its thin client upgrade as part of a bond issue that will see a partial rebate under the federal stimulus legislation approved by Congress earlier this year.

The foundation for moving to a thin client model was already put in place by earlier county decisions to adopt server virtualization. Web-based application delivery via the Software-as-Service model are opening the door to the new strategy. Last year, the county started using human resources applications hosted by Ceridian Corp.

While there may be little difference in some cases between the direct cost of hosted and packaged applications, John said that SaaS becomes more economical when other costs associated with internal systems, such as the storage and disaster recovery, are weighed. Johns did note that in some cases the benefits of SaaS aren't as evident. For example, he said that large cloud-based e-mail providers have yet to convince him that they can offer an exit strategy for abandoning the county provider's platform, he said.

Milwaukee County's plan to adopt thin clients "is probably fairly far out in front," at least among county governments, said Tom Manielli an analyst at IDC, who sees a lot of positives to it. "From a maintenance perspective, you no longer have to send a tech with a cart to a desktop to do fixes." And with improving hardware and virtualization, the end users "probably won't notice a big difference" from using a PC, he said.

Thin client usage remains small, but Gartner Inc. forecasted earlier this year that thin client terminals and diskless/repurposed PCs will comprise 10% of all professional client devices by 2014. Ray Bjorklund, a vice president at consulting firm Federal Sources Inc., in McLean, Va., said he expects that the federal government will increase its adoption of thin client and cloud technologies. "It's a trend that makes pretty good economic sense and even better operational sense," he added.

While thin clients can help cut cost, John and his IT department face a particularly time ahead. The budget proposal will outsource the mainframe personnel, but the county still host the environment. The outsourcer will be required to give hiring priority to affected workers. The budget document indicates that some 13 staffed positions may be impacted by the change and that outsourcing the tasks could save $450,000.

This story, "Facing big budget cuts, county turns to thin clients, SaaS" was originally published by Computerworld.

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