Thin is In

Cook County Circuit Court uses thin client technology to modernize in lean budget times.

by / October 13, 2003
When you ask Dorothy Brown to characterize the difference between the Circuit Court of Cook County, Ill., now and before the recent implementation of thin client technology, you first get a burst of laughter ... then a measured response.

"I would say we've gone from zero to 1,000 in technology," said Brown, clerk of Cook County's Circuit Court, who ran for the position in 2000 on a platform of "bringing the court into the 21st century."

The old system consisted of a 1980s mainframe and dumb terminals. Forget word processing, spreadsheets or e-mail -- it included none of them. If a terminal broke down in the Circuit Court, which includes Chicago and surrounding areas, a staff member had to drive to one of the many locations to fix it.

With the new Neoware system, court personnel have everything the old system provided, as well as benefits of Web-based and Windows-based applications. Thin clients replaced the old, dumb, green screen terminals and PCs, which also reduces maintenance costs since the appliances can be repaired remotely from a central location.

"It's bringing them all the benefits of modern computing, which they really didn't have access to before," said Neoware CEO Michael Kantrowitz.

Thin client terminals are also available for the public, which can now access public records that weren't readily available before. And the devices provide court employees with communication methods they didn't previously have -- they can now use modern computer applications like Microsoft Word and Excel to write letters, said Kantrowitz. They previously used typewriters.

That translates into a happier work environment for the court's 2,300 employees. "It really helps improve the morale of our employees to be using more up-to-date technology," Brown said. "Just the difference between the screens -- from the green screen dumb terminal to the new Neoware thin client -- is a magnificent change."

The court stores around 543 million records, and court clerks process approximately 12 million to 13 million transactions per month, which now happens much more quickly. The court recently consolidated its mainframe with the county's much larger mainframe, which has helped speed up the system as well.

Kantrowitz said the thin client devices are easy to install and have a small learning curve. "It's just plug and play. You just plug it into your mainframe the way the old PC or green screen terminal did," he said. "They can do everything they did before. That's an important thing about thin clients -- they provide access to all legacy systems, so these guys can run all their mainframe applications without any retraining."

PCs Get the Boot
The thin clients are an improvement over the dumb terminals, but why thin clients and not PCs?

Budgets are tight, and saving money was imperative.

"The idea behind the thin clients is it saved them close to half the upfront cost of personal computers," Kantrowitz said. "With loosely managed personal computers, you need a system administrator for every 50 PCs, so they would have needed dozens of system administrators for the number of devices they've rolled out. They haven't added a single person with thin clients."

Each thin client represents a savings of approximately $500 compared to the near $1,000 a PC would have cost, according to court CIO Craig Wimberly. "We're saving each time we deploy a thin client."

Since the deployment began in late 2001, the court has spent about $1.5 million, which was money already allocated to the court, according to Brown.

"We are governed from a fiscal standpoint, by an elected Cook County Board of Commissioners, and we simply used funding allocated to us already and refocused it to better utilize it," Brown said.

With deployments spread over an expansive area, the low maintenance of the thin clients and the ability to control them remotely with Neoware's management software was another factor in the deployment.

"With this technology, if a user is having a problem, we can remote-control dial in and access their terminal and take over," said Bridget Dancy, chief of network services for the court. "We don't have to make as many site visits now."

Unlike PCs, which require IT staff to make changes on each individual PC, remote access to thin clients allows them to make changes from a central location, in groups and schedule the changes during day or evening. IT staff can manage thousands of thin clients remotely.

The technology also allows for greater security, according to Kantrowitz.

"That allows the system administrator sitting at the desk to control, configure, lockdown and secure all thin clients with just a few mouse clicks," he said. "Since a thin client has no hard drive, no floppy, no CD-ROM, it is easier to secure and little can go wrong. Confidential information is protected because it's stored on a server, not on the local device. It can't be taken away on a floppy. People can't bring floppies or CDs from home and load their own software. There's much better security, and that translates into lower ongoing costs."

Aside from the thin client cost versus PC cost, the court has yet to quantify its savings from the new technology.

"There's going to be a reallocation of staff internally," Brown said. "The efficiency of each staff member is expected to increase."

A Niche Market
Thin clients were a hot topic in the late 1990s, when some predicted they'd outsell PCs by the end of 2000. Their growth, however, didn't match the hype. Why not?

The thin client is great for tasks that require multiple users to access data stored on a central server. It's not great for tasks involving locally stored information.

"It's a niche market, but one that is growing and projected to be significant," Kantrowitz said. "In reality, it didn't really start growing until 2001, which is when Microsoft built thin client technology into every one of its operating systems."

He said approximately 1 percent of the desktop market is made up of thin clients, and it is projected to reach 4 percent to 5 percent. "At this point, it is one of the fastest growing sectors in the entire technology industry."

The Cook County Circuit Court is a believer so far, and is finally part of the 21st century.
Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor Justice and Public Safety Editor