Jul 17 2008

Mission-Driven Desktops

Navy Lab boosts computer performance through thin-client upgrade.

The Navy's Integrated Warfare Systems Laboratory supports the certification of ballistic missile computer programs to make sure they are ready for combat — and it relies on thin clients to support the effort.

The lab is part of the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Va., where Navy personnel research, develop and test new surface weapons systems. The employees historically used X-terminals and servers to access 350 applications they use. The apps reside on servers running a variety of operating systems, including Microsoft Windows, Linux, HP-UX and even old VMS flavors.

Three years ago, the IT department decided that the lab’s aging thin-client architecture suffered from too many outages. Performance was slow, and its inability to handle new network protocols and multiple sessions hampered users’ ability to have multiple graphics-intensive applications open at the same time, says Brian Whyte, a lab systems administrator. The IT staff decided to upgrade its technology with a new, more powerful and feature-rich thin-client solution featuring four new servers and about 125 new desktop thin-client devices from Sun Microsystems.

All at Once

With the old X-terminals, users could only open one session to access graphics-rich apps, and if they needed to access other apps simultaneously, they would use Telnet and then work in their chosen app using command-line instructions. Leveraging the new thin-client technology with portal server software developed in-house has given the lab’s thin-client users the ability to connect to multiple windowed graphical sessions at the same time using Citrix and network protocols, such as Remote Desktop Protocol, XDMCP and Secure Shell, Whyte says.

About 500 Navy users — service personnel and contract staff — have access to the thin clients, but only about 50 use them at any one time, says Eva Hatcherson, leader of the Computer Systems Group for the computer center at the Integrated Warfare Systems Laboratory.

During the past three years, as the X-terminals reached the end of their lifecycle, the IT staff replaced them with the newer thin clients. The migration is about 75 percent complete.

The lab has a second thin-client environment featuring two Sun servers and 50 thin-client devices, which is used to give a different set of users access to schedulers, databases and other tools required to run a test facility. The thin clients in this second environment use smart cards to authenticate users.

The lab isn’t a full thin-client environment, however. There are also about 150 PCs. Some personnel, who handle data archiving and analysis, need PCs to support extensive media processing and their use of peripherals, such as CD-ROMs, to upload data onto the server or to make copies of data on other media.

Other Benefits

The new thin-client technology and software is also much more configurable. It’s possible to customize the look and much easier to configure the software to support newer network protocols such as SSH, which allows for encrypted communications between thin-client devices and servers, Whyte says. The thin clients have USB ports, but the IT staff has disabled them to prevent users from connecting devices and copying unauthorized data. If thin-client users need to copy files, they go to the IT staff, which copies the data to CD-ROM or other media for them, Hatcherson says.

The IT department has done some customization work. It built the portal application that provides users access to every app they need when they turn on their thin clients. And to appease the Navy's security officer, the tech team turned off dynamic IP addresses and assigned a static IP address to each thin-client instead. If there is any suspicious computer activity, the security staff can trace it, Hatcherson says.

Overall, the new thin clients work as advertised. They are much easier to manage than regular PCs. “They are cheaper and require less manpower,” Hatcherson says.

Read more about possible thin-client uses in government in this online white paper.