Thin Is In -- Thin Clients Save Time And Money

By Adam Stone | Posted November 03, 2004

For Charles Hagstrand, software upgrades were nothing less than excruciating. As CIO at CapitalCare Medical Group, , a physician-owned, primary-care medical practice in upstate New York, he would literally spend weeks installing new applications and updates at the company's 19 locations.

Not any more.

In early 2000, Hagstrand converted the company's computers to a thin client network, and his world has changed. "Now instead of taking weeks to do an update, we can do it in less than an hour," he said.

A thin client is a network computer without a hard disk drive. In a thin client environment, all the network intelligence resides on a central server: That's where the applications run, rather than on individual desktops.

A thin client comes with its own memory, processor, Internet browser and a variety of ports for connecting peripherals. Some of the companies that sell thin clients include HP, Maxspeed and NCD among others.

Equipment manufacturers have increasingly been marketing such systems toward the small- and medium-sized business market, which they say could reap substantial benefits by moving away from a PC-based model.

"One of the challenges for a small business is operating their business with consistency," explained Tad Bodeman, director of consolidated client and thin client solutions for HP. "Typically in a small or medium business you may have someone who is smart about PCs, someone who changes settings or creates their own file structures. Then that person leaves and you end up hiring someone who is much less PC savvy, and for them to pick up where that last individual left off is a challenge."

That can't happen in a thin client environment. With all system intelligence parked on the central server or servers, employees at the desktop level cannot alter configurations without special password permission from the system administrator. "With server-based computing the business manager can really define the operating environment, the look and feel, the process for capturing and saving data," giving all these variables a constant value over time," Bodeman said.

Thin Clients In Action
That promise has captured the attention of network managers in a variety of industries. Take for instance Washington state's King County Public Library, the third largest non-profit public library in the nation, with 42 branches and 1000 public desktop devices. The IT staff supports about 1000 workstations -- a major maintenance task by any standards.


An HP Thin Client
Thin clients, like this one from HP, don't have their own hard drive, but instead run applications off of a central server.

Using a Citrix server-based computing environment, along with Maxspeed thin client desktop devices, the library has been able to consolidate its IT management efforts considerably, saving both time and money in the execution of most IT functions.

Likewise, the Riverside Community Hospital in Riverside, Calif., has adopted thin clients across multiple buildings and professional offices, delivering applications to over 400 physicians and 1400 employees. The centralized system has not only simplified system administration, but also made it easier for the hospital to comply with the information-privacy requirements contained in HIPAA legislation.

Small Business Benefits
In addition to improving system-management efficiencies, advocates say, a thin-client arrangement offers a number of other benefits to SMB users. Take for instance security issues. "With a PC, end users who know what they are doing can be out on the Web downloading files that may infect the system with viruses. Then you end up with a constant struggle to keep your PCs up and running," Bodeman said. In a thin client environment, "you can lock down what users can do. You deliver just the computing functions they need to operate the business."

This helps restrict downloads of extraneous and potentially suspect materials, and if any nasties do get through, "you have just one device that you need to protect," Bodeman noted.

A thin-client terminal may cost $349 to $549 depending on screen resolution and other factors, while a supporting server may run another $1000. Thus the acquisition cost for a thin client system versus a PC system may be roughly equivalent. There is a cost savings, however, in terms of reduced systems management efforts. "It is much more cost effective to set up and maintain one or two servers instead of 15 or 20 PCs," Bodeman said. "It's also much more cost effective to configure a new thin client. You hire someone, put a thin client on their desk and they go to work. It's not like adding a PC where you have to pay someone to get it configured and set up."

Specs HP t5510 Thin Client HP t5710 Thin Client
Operating System Microsoft Windows CE.NET (4.2) Microsoft Windows XPe (SP1)
Browser Microsoft IE 6.0 Microsoft IE 6.0
Processor Speed 800 MHz 800MHz or 1.1GHz
Flash Memory 128 MB 256 MB or 512 MB
Standard Memory 64 MB 256MB DDR2
Ports 4 USB, 1 Serial,1 Parallel, 1 optional PCI 4 USB, 1 Serial, 1 Parallel, 1 optional PCI, 1 PS/2
Manageability Software Altiris deployment solution Altiris deployment solution
Price $359 $509

Thin's Not In For Everyone
The system is not without its drawbacks, however. In particular, the thin client server setup is not always powerful enough to serve every application. Companies that use high-performance applications for example, such as CAD or CAM, will do better with a full P-based system.

Hagstrand for instance is thinking about installing voice-recognition technology. The doctors in the practice want it, but he doubts the thin client network will have sufficient RAM to do the job.

Still, he calls the thin client network a vast improvement upon his old PC-based configuration. In the past, as Hagstrand's business implemented cutting-edge software, "we would get a new update about every three weeks, and we would have to send somebody out to update everybody. We work in a 45-mile radius with 19 sites spread throughout that area, and we just couldn't keep up with it," he said. "Now we are able to deploy the application from a central site and it takes literally just a matter of minutes."

Adam Stone writes extensively on business and technology issues. He makes his virtual residence at inkbiz@yahoo.com and his physical home in Annapolis, Md.

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