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Case Study: Thinking thin

How one county government CIO got his users to go on a thin-client diet and be happy that they did.

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Thinking "thin" is something many people in America struggle with every day. "Thick" versus "thin" evokes images of crazy diets designed to lose all that extra baggage. But expanding waistlines are a lot like the growing costs of new technology. Out of necessity, many state and local governments have been putting their technology programmes on diets and are looking for sound, cost-effective solutions to drive down the high-calorie counts found in hardware, software and support services.
Our story is no different.
Over the years, beginning in the '90s, Oakland County, Michigan, purchased the PCs necessary to keep up with expanding new technologies. In total, we purchased about 3,600. By 2002 our equipment was aging fast, and the first 900 PCs we bought were past the end of their useful lives. Meanwhile, Microsoft was changing operating systems faster than we could keep apace with, and our users were impatient for the latest technology. At the same time, our budgets were being squeezed by revenue shortfalls.
We considered migrating from Windows NT to Windows XP. However, we soon realised that we couldn't afford the additional millions of dollars required to buy new PCs.
At that point, L. Brooks Patterson, our county executive, charged us with the daunting task of finding the most cost-effective method for replacing our desktop PCs ASAP. We desperately needed a solution.
That's when we discovered "thin client."
The thin-client approach piqued our interest because it offered lower-cost desktop hardware. Computing power would be managed at the server level rather than on every individual PC, thereby driving down the cost of thousands of desktop units. And it provided for a much easier approach to supporting new operating platforms, because maintenance could occur at the server level rather than having to physically visit every desktop.
Some of our staff jokingly referred to the project as the new "mainframe." The differences, however, are profound.
The mainframe world utilised "dumb" terminals, in which the applications were very production-oriented, and the data was very difficult to manipulate. The thin-client model uses terminal technology as well, but provides the end user with the same functionality as that of a standard PC.
Many of our employees use their computers to perform basically the same tasks over and over again, almost always working from the office rather than from home or on a laptop. This server-based processing system was ideal for a majority of our existing PC users who were only using standard Microsoft Office products rather than graphics or other specialised programs.
One of our main concerns was how users would react to thin-client technology.
We discovered that the benefits of moving to a thin-client environment were numerous. The savings from moving 285 users to thin client rather than replacing their old PCs amounted to $744,000 in phase 1. And the first year of the phase 2 implementation (an additional 540 users) would save the county another $1.4 million.
These savings manifest themselves through hardware savings, streamlined support time and more cost-effective software license management. Software licensing can be better maintained in a thin-client environment because all software is loaded onto a central server and not on the local PC. Another major benefit of thin client is in the area of disaster recovery. In the thin-client environment, users' files are stored on the servers with nightly backups.
Converting users
One of our main concerns was how users would react to this change. So my team took the initiative of organising orientation sessions for key individuals from various departments.
The feedback was exactly what we expected. There was concern that with thin-client technology, the department of information technology would be "looking in" on their files. Employees didn't realise this kind of transparency already existed. We were able to alleviate most users' concerns prior to implementation by giving them a quick start guide and outlining all the differences (or lack of differences) between their current environment and the new thin-client environment. We also provided one-on-one, hands-on training immediately after the installations.
To alleviate concerns about privacy, users were provided with secure network space specifically for their own files, which could only be accessed through their user name and password. And as long as they didn't share their password, their data would be secure (via the network operating system). They would also have portable USB flash drives that would function like their old diskettes. These features seemed to satisfy most of our end users.
The original plan had been to replace old PCs with new terminals. But we soon found that we could strip down old PC towers and convert them to thin-client terminals, thereby extending the life of the PCs and delaying additional capital expenditures in the first phase.
We did replace old monitors and keyboards with flat-screen monitors and new keyboards. These were a key selling point, as users realized an immediate space savings on the desktop and a much "cooler" monitor overall.
While all this was going on, the IT department also upgraded the county's local area network to gigabyte strength so that users would benefit from both newer technology and faster applications. In fact, our greatest challenge in implementing thin client was to ensure that the network operating system could handle the increased needs for centralised computing power. During the initial rollout to some users, we found the speed of our existing communications network to be too slow, and it was causing keyboard response delays. So we made sure that all of the users being converted to thin clients were included in the first phase of the network upgrade so they could derive immediate benefits.
The reception to thin client proved better than expected. One of the initial users was County Prosecutor David Gorcyca, who said he is delighted with his new thin client. "The software applications perform faster and are much simpler to access, making it easy to switch between programs," he said.
The second phase will include a hybrid model that consists of a combination of thin- and thick-client technologies, because we found some users still needed computing power only found in a thick-client PC.
The Hybrid Client is a workstation that uses the thin-client suite of applications (Microsoft Office) already available on the central thin-client server farm. But in addition, the Hybrid Client can run applications dependent on older client-server applications. So while a user may be running Microsoft Office programs and storing files on the thin-client server, they may be running a geographic information system (GIS) application on the computer's internal processor.
Overall, our goal is to create as many thin-client users as possible out of about 3,600 total users. As we move forward with the second phase, we remain optimistic that the investment will be well worth our efforts. So far, the case has been made that our thin-client diet is truly helping us become more agile and efficient. end
Phil Bertolini is the CIO for Oakland County, Mich. His office provides strategic planning, development and support services for more than 60 county departments, 61 local communities and 200 public safety agencies in Michigan. E-mail him at bertolinp@co.oakland.mi.usi.


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