Thin Is In ... Again

Remember thin-client computing? It's back, and jurisdictions making the switch like the results.

by / April 1, 2005
Bill Hill remembers the often vehement opposition that Dayton, Ohio's staff first had to the idea of working with thin-client devices.

"They didn't want to give up their hard drive," said Hill, the city's director of Information and Technology Services. The stigma attached to thin-client computing created the belief in many users' minds that the thin clients would be too much like the old systems with dumb, green screen terminals. "They thought they were getting less computer when I showed them the thin client."

But every time Hill shows a potential convert how quickly a thin-client device can boot up -- no more than six seconds compared to minutes for fat clients -- and that his or her applications are as accessible as they were on their hard drives, it doesn't take Hill long to persuade the user to make the switch.

Today, 70 percent of Dayton's desktop computers -- more than 2,100 -- are thin clients. Users love the thin clients because they start so quickly, and users still get all the computing power they had with fat PCs. Hill and his staff love them for their tremendous cost savings and ease of maintenance.

Hill is not alone.

CIOs are adopting thin clients in greater numbers, according to several of studies. Demand for thin clients grew approximately 12 percent in 2003, about four times faster than the rate for PCs, according to market research firm IDC. Still, thin clients represent only a fraction of all computers on desktops today.

In the corporate world, demand has been driven by the need to centralize computing resources -- such as servers -- a greater need for information security, and the burgeoning growth in Linux and other open source computing tools, which provide broad support for thin clients.

Recent Advances
Thin-client computing got its start in Dayton because the city needed to replace what could be called an obsolete thin-client system: its mainframe computers. Thin clients evoke their ancestral cousins -- green screen terminals -- because they consist of just a small, thin-client device, monitor, keyboard and mouse. Applications run centrally on servers. Bandwidth requirements are much lower because the networks transmit just monitor, keyboard and mouse updates, not application data.

Thin clients have existed for quite some time, but recent advances improved their practicality in the workplace. For instance, client software is now a standard browser plug-in, extending the life of low-end PC hardware. The software also includes effective load-balancing features to improve back-end server performance. As a result, thin-client computing can deliver benefits that are hard to ignore.

These benefits include lower operating costs.

Hill estimates Dayton saved between $2 million and $3 million, not counting "soft cost savings." For Hill, going to thin clients meant not having to hire at least 10 people to manage a traditional client-server network for the city. The machines sharply reduced the cost of software updates. According to one internal city study, software updates for thin clients were 55 percent less costly than for traditional fat clients.

Add in thin clients' staying power -- they last two to six times longer than the average PC -- and the savings quickly begin to add up, Hill explained.

"Every traditional PC we purchased in the 1997-98 time frame has been replaced at least two times now, but the majority of thin clients purchased then are still humming," he said, noting another advantage of thin clients over traditional PCs -- lower energy costs. "Our research revealed thin clients use about one-seventh to one-tenth the electricity of a traditional PC. We conservatively figure we save more than $60,000 annually for every 1,000 thin clients."

Thick and Thin
Hill uses MetaFrame thin-client software from Citrix Systems. Other players in the thin-client software field include Microsoft, Tarantella and Neoware. In the growing open source market, X.Org offers X Window for thin clients.

Besides lower operating costs and ease of software upgrading, thin-client solutions are also considered more secure by experts. Security features range from no hard drive to compromise to lower risks of viruses and hackers, thanks to the centrally managed protection compared with fat clients' more decentralized approach.

Despite these benefits, thin clients aren't for everyone.

For government users running multiple applications versus one specific, line-of-business application, fat clients are probably a better choice. The same goes for power users, such as GIS specialists and users of rich multimedia software. Thin-client systems require high server performance, since that's where all the processing takes place, and a continuous network connection.

But those issues haven't stopped numerous government entities from using the technology.

"I've talked to dozens of cities that have done what we have," said Hill.

One city that followed Dayton's example is Kenosha, Wis., which switched to thin clients after the city turned off its mainframes in the mid-1990s and moved to a UNIX server using X terminals. More recently, the city migrated to a Linux networking platform and uses thin-client software from Neoware.

"We have hundreds of thin desktops and only two people managing them," said Ruth Schall, Kenosha's MIS director. "There's no way we could have used PCs without increasing the number of personnel doing management and support."

In Illinois, the Cook County Circuit Court Clerk's Office switched to thin clients rather than continue maintaining and upgrading regular PCs for its 2,300 employees. At the federal level, the Coast Guard deployed thin clients, using the platform in its finance department to support more than 1,000 users.

For cost-conscious jurisdictions, thin clients just might be the answer.

"I certainly think they are the right way to go," said Hill, despite the learning curve involved and the bias against thin clients that can make them a hard sell with some folks. "It's the best possible way to hold down costs. We have one of the smallest IT shops per city employee. We have just two administrators and four workers for administering desktops. We could never do that if we ran the full PC environment."
Tod Newcombe Features Editor