The successful use of thin clients at Mount Rainier National Park led two of its technologists, Don Winter, left, and Peter Paul, to propose and pilot their use for interagency emergency responses.
Aug 06 2008

IT Anywhere

The National Park Service and other agencies deploy thin clients to give users access to their apps wherever they roam.

Rich Lechleitner is a jack-of-all-trades. He is a full-time maintenance worker who cleans toilets, but he also manages the helicopters used to carry human waste off Mount Rainier and to search for injured or missing hikers. He is also an occasional wildlife biologist, surveying animals such as mountain goats and the endangered Northern Spotted Owl.

The National Park Service worker spends his days roaming the park, and every few hours he stops at one of its eight offices to check e-mail or access applications — such as geographic information software, an Excel spreadsheet or a facilities maintenance software system — to input the work he’s done.

What makes this possible is the park’s thin-client network, which lets Lechleitner log in with his user name and password at end-user terminals and access his apps and files stored on central servers. He can use GIS to locate on the map where he’s seen an owl or check coordinates to order a helicopter for search and rescue.

“It’s a real advantage for me because I can go from one office to another, and it’s like I’m sitting at my desk,” Lechleitner says.

In many ways, Lechleitner is the prototypical Park Service user — rarely working in one place for long and certainly rarely at a desk. For just that reason, the tech team at Mount Rainier has steadily been converting users to thin clients, a move that its parent agency views as a model for parks nationwide.

The Thin Brigade

The National Park Service is not alone in this thin-is-in movement. The technology has been around for decades, but analysts say it is starting to see increased adoption in the government because of two main benefits: centralized management and lower cost of ownership.

IT departments can manage the computing infrastructure and install security patches and software updates in one location — the data center — rather than managing and updating each and every desktop computer. Thin clients also typically cost less and last twice as long — five to seven years — as the typical PC.

“Thin clients have never reached critical mass and have been a hard sell for agencies because end users prefer PCs,” says analyst Shawn P. McCarthy of IDC’s Government Insights. “But we’re seeing renewed interest because of the cost of maintaining desktop systems. The amount of patching and updates is wearing on the IT departments. Many of them see thin clients as a possible better solution.”

That’s the case at the Agriculture Department. CIO Chuck Christopherson now requires that every new application USDA buys or builds supports thin-client devices and mobile technology. “It’s a best practice for security purposes and a good practice 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 Christopherson, who also serves as the department’s chief financial officer.

For one Navy lab, thin clients provide speedier service for a user base that must access a wide array of software each day to do its job developing and testing new surface weapons systems.

“A lot of our users need to multitask and tap into many different flavors of operating systems and tools for their day-to-day work,” says Brian Whyte, a systems administrator for the Navy’s Integrated Warfare Systems Laboratory at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Va.

Desktop Diet: USDA's goal is to migrate 50,000 of its 130,000 employees to
thin clients within the next three to five years.
Source: USDA Office of the CIO

Users have seen a dramatic performance increase, which has bolstered productivity, says Eva Hatcherson, leader of the Computer Systems Group for the lab’s computer center. “When our users connect, it takes just seconds or milliseconds to launch applications,” she says. “Before, if they tried to bring up a Windows desktop, it would take minutes.”

With thin clients, servers power the computing functions and store the applications and data, and information flows back and forth to thin-client computers, which are small desktop devices with no hard drives and limited functionality. New thin-client technologies, such as streaming OSes, blade PCs and desktop virtualization, give users nearly complete PC functionality, adding to their appeal.

Agencies find thin clients an attractive end-user technology because they bolster security, aid in continuity of operations and are more environmentally friendly, given their smaller footprint and reduced power consumption, IDC’s McCarthy says.

Agencies, for example, can equip users with new thin-client notebook computers, and if they are stolen, no sensitive data is lost because the data is stored on the host server.

With desktop thin clients, department heads no longer need to require employees to lock their computer hard drives at day’s end, fearful that someone might walk off with them in the middle of the night. And if a disaster prevents staff members from going to the office, agencies can quickly get back up and running by opening a temporary office with thin clients that employees can use to tap their applications or data. Employees can also log in remotely from a thin-client notebook or from a home PC.

Christopherson sees the disaster-readiness as a key factor for the technology’s future adoption at USDA. “If we have a hurricane or pandemic, employees can log in from an approved location,” he says. “It could be at home, if they telework, or we can move into a warehouse with card tables set up and Category 6 cable running down the row, and employees can log in. It keeps us flexible and allows us to have a mobile workforce.”

Inside the Park

At Mount Rainier, the IT department issues thin clients to employees ranging from finance and budget technicians to maintenance workers and biologists — anyone who needs to log in to computers as they make their way through the 250,000-acre park.

Peter Paul and Don Winter, IT specialists for the North Coast and Cascades Network of the National Park Service, say the computing model is good for Mount Rainier employees who need anywhere-access to e-mail and applications such as Microsoft Office.

The park has a mix of Hewlett-Packard and Neoware thin clients. It mainly uses HP T5530 desktop systems, but it also has some HP T5730, T5520, T5510, T20s and T1010 desktops, and a few HP 6720T notebook clients.

40 The number of network-in-a-box, thin-client kits that interagency teams
want to stockpile for emergency response; the teams, which include Park Service
techies, have seven now

The IT team at Mount Rainier was an early adopter of thin-client technology. Since 1999, Paul and Winter have standardized on Microsoft Terminal Services server software, which hosts common desktop applications, such as Office, on a server.

Through the Microsoft Remote Desktop Protocol, users with thin clients can remotely access apps on Mount Rainier servers.

Today, 45 of the park’s 180 computers are thin clients. But the IT department recently purchased another 24 thin clients to bring the ratio of PCs to thin clients closer to 50-50, Winter says. The department wants to increase thin-client use because the systems reduce management headaches and they are better for the environment, he says. “It’s 65 watts as opposed to 350 to 400 watts for a regular desktop computer and monitor,” Winter points out.

But a mixed computing environment is still necessary for the Mount Rainier staff because some users require special apps that aren’t designed for the thin-client environment, such as the park’s human resources system.

Tag-Team Tool

The success of the technology at the park prompted Paul and Winter to propose use of thin clients for their emergency-response work, too.

The two National Park Service technologists serve on an elite Pacific Northwest incident management team that coordinates firefighting efforts and responds to hurricanes and other disasters.

When the interagency team mobilizes, Paul and Winter must build a network and ensure that the rest of their team, members of the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and other agencies, can access geographic information systems and other applications they need to handle the emergency. Historically, however, keeping the network up and running has been easier said than done.

The nation’s incident management teams traditionally build ad-hoc networks made up of rented, agency-owned and employee-owned notebook computers, with one notebook acting as the server.

The result is often a slow, unstable network that forces Paul and Winter to work 16-hour days to keep the network operating. They must configure each computer, apply software updates, tweak security and network settings, and map each notebook to network drives, printers and plotters that print large-scale maps. “The peer-to-peer sharing of notebooks was a horrible, cobbled-together network. I had a to-do list in my pocket that I constantly added to. It was easy but time-consuming stuff,” Paul recalls. “Now that we’ve moved to thin clients, we no longer have the constant busy work. The time we spend managing the system is greatly reduced.”

Ad-hoc networks often go down repeatedly and are typically sluggish because they are powered by a notebook computer, says Forest Service District Ranger Deborah Schmidt, who is based in Cottage Grove, Ore., and serves as planning section chief for the Pacific Northwest Incident Management Team 2 that Paul and Winter serve on.

In contrast, the thin-client model with a powerful server gives the first-responder teams a fast, stable network.

“All the folks on the team have been pleased with the thin clients. It’s much more stable, and the applications we use run a lot faster,” Schmidt says. “For my folks, timeliness and having a stable system is extremely important because they have to work late into the night to get things done, so we can get everything ready for crews the next day. And if the network isn’t fast, it forces them to work even later.”

The thin-client pilot project was so successful last summer that this year federal agencies involved with firefighting are rolling them out to more of the nation’s incident management teams.

“We’ve proven we can deploy networks that are faster and more stable, and as a result, this whole project is just taking off,” Paul says.

Photo: Rick Dahms