Jul 30 2008

Leaning Toward Thin

You know the old saying that you can never be too thin? IT specialists Peter Paul and Don Winter at the National Park Service couldn’t agree more.

Until a recent pilot project, Paul and Winter managed a peer-to-peer PC network that generated a never-ending to-do list of troubleshooting, rebooting and remapping network drives. Like an increasing number of IT administrators, they wanted out of that and in on a centralized, thin-client infrastructure. (See cover story, “IT Anywhere.”)

The thin-client trend is one that we’ll see more of across the federal landscape as IT looks to meet the two-pronged task of reducing management overhead and costs while supporting diverse end-user needs. (Try providing application access in a forest, for instance, which was Paul and Winter’s challenge.)

Yet it’s not just the computers that cause management headaches. Agencies typically support a tremendous number of apps, too, a process made easier in a centralized thin-client environment.

Power Driver

Going thin offers another advantage beyond easing systems management: power reduction. Everywhere in government, IT chiefs are looking for ways to pursue environmentally friendly options — but only if they can also meet their agencies’ needs. Thin clients fit that bill. They use less energy, generally offer a longer lifecycle and contain fewer parts that ultimately must make their way to a landfill.

Forrester Research reports that a thin-client terminal consumes be­-tween 6 and 50 watts of power compared with the 150 to 350 watts consumed by a PC. Do the math: In an agency with 5,000 users, replacing PCs with thin clients could reduce costs by 24 percent and carbon emissions by 23 percent.

“It’s a good best practice for security purposes and for our green initiatives because it uses a lot less power. It’s also a huge cost savings because we can replace desktops at the end of their lifecycle with less expensive thin clients,” says Agriculture Department CIO Chuck Christopherson, who is actively exploring various thin-client options. “If the system becomes dead, you take it out of the desk and plug a new one in, and it’s ready to go again. It’s fast.”

Yet despite the benefits, there’s some pushback. Some users express as much excitement over thin clients as they do for, say, low-fat ice cream. These end users view the move as a downgrade, a technology demotion if you will. In fact, IDC Government Insights analyst Shawn McCarthy says overcoming poor end-user perception is “the biggest problem” that IT must address.

This harks back to earlier iterations of the technology that simply weren’t as robust as today’s offerings. If thin is in at your agency, make sure your end users understand what they’re getting. “As people learn more about what thin clients can do today and how flexible they are, you will see rejection reduced somewhat,” McCarthy says.

Many thin clients now come standard with a processor, RAM and Flash memory, so some apps run locally and others show a boost in performance when run off a server. At Mount Rainier the machines sport RAM and Flash memory.

If you really want to convince users, stop talking and let them test-drive the technology. Most won’t be able to tell the difference between the functionality of a thin device and a full-fledged PC. But your IT administrators will — when they’re running security patches, replacing broken equipment and packing up old machines at the end of a long, yet useful and energy-efficient life.

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Lee Copeland

Editor in Chief

Photo: Orlando Copeland