If we take a swing back through a few decades of history, we find ourselves in an era when mainframes housed the government’s applications and computing capabilities.
Around the mid-1980s, PC deployments boomed, with apps migrating to client-server networks and distributed data storage. Although the PC-dominated environment empowered end users, it spawned many enterprise challenges for CIOs.
With much improved technology, a mainframe-like processing environment is making a comeback, using thin-client workstations connected to servers. The claim is that a thin-client computing model gives end users a PC-like processing experience, while providing CIOs a centrally controlled computing infrastructure that is easier to secure and less expensive to operate and maintain. That sounds like a win-win result; let’s examine it in a bit more detail.
Thin clients are essentially desktop or portable computers with no hard drives for storage and that need to be connected to a server to operate. In this model, the server provides the bulk of computing functionality and stores the data. Improvements in the technology upon which thin clients rely let these devices perform the functions required of contemporary computing, including full-streaming video and audio.
Security is improved in several ways. First, data is stored on the server, not the client device. This means CIOs don’t have to worry about client computers, hard drives or thumb drives being stolen or otherwise compromised. Second, CIOs can focus their attention on securing the servers that power the thin clients. It is much easier and less costly to virus-protect a modest number of servers than thousands of PCs. It is also easier to provide physical security and to ensure continuity of operations.
The cost of a thin device is roughly half that of a PC, so upgrading is less expensive. In addition, thin clients require replacement roughly half as often as PCs, extending the cost savings. But most important, software resides on the servers, not the clients, significantly reducing the labor involved for upgrades and patches. CIOs realize the full benefit of remote client management from the data center. The bottom line? Thin clients yield a lower total cost of ownership.
A thin-client infrastructure also is more environmentally friendly because it can operate on reduced power. With the heightened focus on green IT, this may prove to be a politically powerful advantage in and of itself.
Like most projects that affect the daily lives of federal employees, strategy is not the key to success when rolling out a thin-client architecture. It’s well established that these devices present an opportunity to both improve security and better manage cost, while providing a robust computing experience for users.
Rather, the challenge when deploying thin clients is change management. For more than two decades, users have gained increasingly powerful PCs; they will be suspicious of any attempts to take away that capability. To assuage their fears, IT needs to take the following actions before, during and after deployment:
- Make a strong business case (for at least a five-year period). Ensure the business case includes all the basic elements of cost savings, including hardware, software, maintenance and labor. Don’t exaggerate savings from new techniques, such as virtualization. Highlight cost savings per user instead. Be prepared to tie your plan to whatever the new administration expects from agencies in terms of managing IT infrastructure cost and performance.
- Pilot the new infrastructure, including any other organizational components tied to thin clients. Monitor the pilot closely: Make sure the operation is well managed and that you have accurate performance statistics. Also, ensure that you have a fairly seamless cut-over between processing sites should you experience an outage, and that your IT staff focuses relentlessly on customer service.
- Pay a lot of attention to your end users, and show interest in their concerns. Be prepared to demonstrate how thin clients are at least as good as PCs — if not better — at optimizing the computing environment. Over-communicate, and show interest in users’ concerns.
- Get daily reports on network performance. Ask for immediate alerts whenever an outage occurs. Let your staff see that you are personally committed to serving end users.
- Implement the new technology at a workable pace. Don’t push conversions that stretch your organization’s ability to provide support.
Agencies are moving toward thin clients; the Agriculture and Defense departments are prime examples. As the government makes a noticeable shift toward this computing environment, make sure you are in the game.