Aug 20 2008

Think Thin

Security and cost-cutting are driving companies toward thin-client computing.

Photo: Trey Clark
First Security Bank's Brody Walker says thin clients are a more secure alternative for the bank's 300 tellers.

Brody Walker, vice president of First Security Bank in Searcy, Ark., would like to count on his tellers to be cybersafe. After all, they have access to both sensitive financial data and the Internet. But he can’t; the stakes are too high. The desktop PCs are too unreliable, and the temptation of a bored employee to visit virus-infected websites is too great.

That’s why earlier this year Walker began switching over 300 tellers — one-third of the privately held bank’s 900 workers — from PCs to thin clients.

“We don’t have to worry about patches on the client or what the user might want to do on the workstation,” Walker says. “Having more granular control is significant when you’re dealing with things like spyware.”

Data security — and the attendant costs of maintaining up-to-date software patches — is one of the most important reasons behind any push toward thin computing, according to Bob O’Donnell, vice president of the clients and displays research program at International Data Corp. (IDC).

“Enterprise thin clients — the desktop component of thin computing — are one of the least understood hardware options available to today’s IT managers, yet they are one of the most cost-effective and secure options,” he says.

Thin-client shipments should reach7.3 million worldwide by 2011, up from 2.7 million in 2006, according to IDC.

Another company that has made the switch to thin clients is Amerisure Mutual Insurance, Farmington Hills, Mich. Amerisure had 800 desktop machines scattered among 10 offices. That meant 800 individual hard drives containing sensitive data, just waiting to be compromised, not to mention 800 PCs that broke down periodically.

“The biggest hard-dollar savings I can show is the PC refreshment cycle,” says Jack Wilson, assistant vice president and enterprise architect for information technology at Amerisure. “With thin clients, there’s nothing to break, and we won’t need to upgrade them for years.”

How to Get Thin

In a thin-computing environment, diskless workstations are connected to servers that house the bulk of the processing power, applications and stored data. Thin-client end users see familiar software interfaces, but the software is centrally located and managed by the IT department. IT administrators can thus restrict the flow of sensitive data while cutting maintenance costs by updating software from a single location. That’s why thin clients are generally considered more secure than desktop PCs.

The worldwide
desktop virtualization
market will be
worth at least
$1.8 billion
by 2012.

Source: Credit Suisse

The newest available thin clients include Wyse Technology’s Viance and Hewlett-Packard’s HP Compaq t5730 Thin Client, both introduced in May. This June, IGEL Technology of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., announced that its nine thin-client devices would support Citrix System’s new XenDesktop software. Citrix released its XenDesktop virtualization software in May. The line includes five versions, ranging from an Express Edition for desktop virtualization for 10 or fewer users to the Platinum Edition laden with security, monitoring and end-user support features. And VMware has announced its ThinApp4, a utility that lets users run multiple versions of applications — for example, Internet Explorer 7 on any Windows operating system — without conflict.

Other Ways to Stay Thin

Security aside, businesses see thin computing as a way of cutting costs. Because they lack a disk drive and other moving parts, and because they use processing power that is centrally updated, thin clients are expected to last two to three times longer than desktops. Typically, that means six to nine years instead of three. Software deployment is also less costly. According to Gartner, virtualized applications can reduce the cost of testing, packaging and supporting an application by 60 percent.

That’s important to First Security Bank’s Walker.

“We had [standard PCs] at the teller window, and obviously you have potential for drive and component failure,” he says.

“The thin clients we chose to deploy have no fans and no moving parts,” Walker adds. “If one does fail, you can replace it and have the end user up and running within a couple of minutes. That’s better than taking several hours for reimaging a PC, or upwards of a day to replace the PC if there is a hardware component failure.”

Top four benefits that would compel your company to deploy thin clients:

1. Improved total cost of ownership (TCO)
2. Easier to implement virtualization
3. Easier server maintenance
4. Easier to protect data against viruses

Source: 287 BizTech readers

Amerisure nearly halved its PC replacement costs by using longer-lasting thin clients. Wilson says the estimated cost to replace Amerisure’s PCs with new models was nearly $1.5 million two years ago. That cost included new hardware, software, deployment, removal, destruction and consulting fees. This cost was cut almost in half, to just $800,000, when Amerisure switched to thin clients and new servers, he says. Wilson expects each thin client to be in service for seven to nine years.

Thin computing also brings other advantages. For starters, businesses can simplify their computing platforms. Amerisure had a smorgasbord of platforms before switching to thin clients. These included a mainframe, more than 20 servers, and a mixture of
Windows, Unix, Oracle and DB2 databases, says Wilson.

“It was the usual evolution you see with layer upon layer stacked up,” he says. “There was not much thought given on how to manage these technologies.”

Thin-client computing does have its downside. “The best thin-client use is for specific applications, like a database that everyone uses or another business application,” says Neal Smith, founder of C-Clear Solutions, an Arlington, Va., computer consultancy. Integrated office suites and Internet browsers sometimes don’t function well in a terminal environment, he adds.

“There are many elements of modern websites that do not do particularly well in a terminal environment,” Smith says. “For example, users may need to update the Flash engine for a particular site, and the terminal security will either not allow it or throw away the change after they are done with their session.”

Walker agrees there are always glitches. He had problems getting a vertical banking application to work with 300 printers in the thin-client environment, but figured out a script-based workaround.

“Ultimately, we’ve evolved into a more secure, centralized environment with a significant support cost savings over thick clients,” says Walker.

CEO Takeaway
The latest research demonstrates that after all these years, thin-client computing may finally catch on:
• Thin-client devices are more energy-efficient than personal computers, with some models using 85 percent less power than their PC rivals in real-world environments, according to a study done for Wyse Technology by Thin Client Computing, Scottsdale, Ariz. This energy efficiency translates into significant, measurable cost savings for businesses both in the short term and the long term, whether an organization is using dozens, hundreds or thousands of desktop devices, according to the study.
• Forrester Research says client virtualization is not just an emerging trend, it's the future of corporate computing. Virtualization, whether of the entire desktop environment or individual applications, is at the heart of thin-client computing. Forrester reached its conclusions after interviews with 100 businesses and 15 vendors.