WinConnect Server XP

When Allstate Steel of Jacksonville, Fla. shut down its Atlanta office last year, one vital employee stayed on in the city. The plan was that he would work from home, but there was one slight snag with the plan.

The Atlanta employee is a detailer, an architectural draughtsman who draws up detailed plans of steel skyscraper skeletons. Several detailers at a time work on a single project, logging on to the same detailing program on a network server. The problem was finding a way for the Atlanta employee to log on to Allstate’s system from home.

Jon DeCausemaker, the company’s IT manager and a detailer himself, solved it by installing WinConnect Server XP, a thin client hosting program from ThinSoft of Emeryville, Calif., on a host system in Jacksonville. It allows the Atlanta employee to log on over a telephone company home digital subscriber line(DSL) Internet connection.

“Naturally it runs slower than if he was on the local network,” DeCausemaker says. “But it’s not as much slower as you might think — maybe 20 percent.” And that’s mainly because of the relatively slow Internet connection. With a T-1 connection (1.54 Mbps), he figures the difference in performance would be negligible.

Allstate is also using it to let the company’s senior executives log on to their desktops from their laptops when traveling. But the product and the whole notion of thin client have much broader applications. In a small networked office, it can be a great way to extend the life of old PCs.

A few years ago, thin client was a hot buzzword in information technology. Instead of connecting fully autonomous PCs over a network to a server, you connected stripped down PCs — thin clients — with no hard drive and only modest processing capabilities. Applications ran on the server, critical data was stored centrally.

It wasn’t really revolutionary, of course, more a return to the dumb terminal and mainframe of olden-days computing. But thin clients promised to reduce hardware costs. They would naturally be cheaper than full PCs and, more important, they would be easier — and therefore cheaper — to manage. You didn’t have to update software on scores or hundreds or thousands of desktops, only on one or a handful of servers. And you wouldn’t have to worry about users forgetting to back up their data.

The thin client concept had and still has its points, but it never really went mainstream with enterprise customers as some vendors hoped. Now ThinSoft’s WinConnect Server XP, which sells for $299 for a license that allows three clients to log on to the same host, puts a distinctly small business spin on the thin client idea.

WinConnect takes advantage of Microsoft’s Remote Desktop Connection (RDC) technology, which allows a user on a remote PC to log on to a host XP system. Such a remote user can use applications, printers and Internet connections running on the host, and store data on the host’s hard drive exactly as if the user were sitting at the host system.

The remote system doesn’t have to be a purpose-built thin client device. It can be any PC running RDC client software — including Linux and even DOS systems. The host can be any system running WinXP, Home or Professional — though there are some restrictions with Home. The means of connection can be a local area network (LAN) or the Internet.

These are all native capabilities of XP and Windows 2000. WinConnect Server XP adds vital additional capabilities.

Now multiple remote users can log on to the host and a local user can also continue to be logged on, and they can all use applications and other resources at the same time. Because XP is a true multi-tasking operating system, these users can coexist happily — provided the host has enough processing and memory resources.

You could set up a whole network of thin clients and not have to worry about buying additional licenses for some software packages or upgrading multiple systems. You can also store all your data centrally — or at least manage data storage centrally.

If you’ve got a network of only four or five PCs in a small office, this may not at first sound all that compelling. But consider this scenario. Some of your PCs are 486 or first-generation Pentium models and they’re running out of horse power. Users are complaining they’re not fast enough. You may even have decommissioned them already.

You could replace them with new Pentium 4 or Celeron models, but that would be expensive. An alternative is to load a new or existing Pentium 3 or 4 machine with WinConnect Server XP and connect the old machines to it. This is clearly cheaper, and the thin client users will still see a marked boost in performance because they’re now sharing the resources of the more powerful XP host rather than relying on the resources of their old computer.

You wouldn’t want to do this if your thin client users were all PC-centric and spent hours working with graphic- and computer-intensive applications. But if they’re light users and only need standard office applications — e-mail, browser, word processing, spread sheet — it works fine. As long as you meet the minimum requirements for the host — Pentium III 1GHz processor, 256 MB of RAM for three clients, plus 64 MB for each additional client.

I tested the product on my 1.6-GHz Dell Dimension 4300 desktop PC running Windows XP Home. I connected a single remote client to it over an 11-Mbps wireless LAN. The client machine is a three-year-old Toshiba 7010CT Protigi laptop (300 MHz Pentium II, 32MB), running Windows 98.

While configuring the two machines took a little effort, the ThinSoft product worked out of the box pretty much as advertised. Over a period of more than a week, my partner used the client machine for all her normal computing — Outlook Express, Internet Explorer, MS Word, Intuit Quicken — and I noticed no performance impact on the host, which I continued to use as my main desktop.

Running Quicken, for whatever reason, involves transferring masses of program data. It can hog virtually all network resources for seconds at a time. If I was simultaneously trying to download a big file from the Net, there would certainly be network contention problems. But this didn’t arise during the test period and seems unlikely to arise often in normal use.

Of course, every office’s experience will be different — depending on types and amount of use by the client systems. And having three or more clients attached is bound to have a bigger impact on the host than just one.

On the client side, we noticed a big boost in performance. Quicken XG, for example, is a very slow-loading program. On the 200MHz Pentium II desktop my partner had been using, it takes close to 40 seconds for the program to load. On the WinConnect client machine, with Quicken now running on the XP host, it takes less than 15 seconds.

A Web page that took 26 seconds to load when using the Toshiba laptop’s local resources, took less than 15 seconds when the machine was being used as a client on the XP host. The experience on the client is by no means the same as using the host machine locally, but it is significantly better than when using only the laptop’s own computing resources.

Installing the ThinSoft product was a breeze, but configuring the two systems was a challenge. The Microsoft remote desktop client software is built in to Windows XP, but you have to install it on non-XP machines. After a bit of poking around, I found the Windows 98 client as a free download at the Microsoft site and installed it without problems. You can also find DOS and Linux clients.

Preparing the host machine was where most of the problems occurred. The first step, creating a password-protected user account on the host machine for my new RDC client, was easy enough. But the first time I tried to log on from the client — by entering the new account name and password and clicking Connect in the RDC client software — I got an error message saying the program was unable to connect to the host.

This was because the firewall software on the host, McAfee Firewall, by default blocks User Datagram Protocol (UDP) traffic over the designated RDC port (3389). Even with help from McAfee technical support, I could never configure the software to allow this traffic.

In the end, I switched to the firewall built in to Windows XP, and with help from ThinSoft technical support was able to configure it to allow traffic between the client and WinConnect Server XP. After that, everything worked fine except for a few minor glitches.

The first time the client desktop came up, it displayed some but not all the shortcuts from the host administrative user’s — i.e. my desktop. One of these shortcuts didn’t work, though I later discovered it was possible to launch the program from Windows Explorer.

To configure the client — to add and remove icons from the desktop, for example — I had to first change the client account type to administrative. Later I switched it back to limited user. And I have not been able to get one off-brand legacy product, a personal information manager (PIM), to work at all on the client system.

Other than that, WinConnect Server XP is a very impressive product.

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