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Is Thin In?

Will the 'new' thin client contain spiraling campus computing and support costs, or is it just the 21st century's dumb terminal?

It's no secret that fat has become the new American way. On our highways, SUV roadhogs and oversized pickups outnumber compact and economy cars by a ratio of nearly two to one. In our restaurants, the average portion is supersized--almost twice the size of average portions in other advanced nations around the world. Even in our personal lives, fat is taking over: A recent study by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated that Americans are sitting around and eating themselves to death, with obesity closing in on tobacco as the nation's top underlying preventable killer. Surrounded by all of this fatness, it may be surprising that a handful of colleges and universities are revolutionizing their approaches to campus computing by getting thin. By getting thin clients, that is.

Instead of supplying students and staff members with traditional public desktop terminals that require maintenance and manual upgrades, these schools have opted for kiosk-type units that boast little more than a network card, a processor, a video card, and some local memory. Thin clients are built with single-chip designs that reduce power consumption, maximize Internet compatibility, and present a simplified, controlled environment for effortless software integration. The educators who are using the technology describe it as cheap, easy to manage, and easy to secure.

"Thin client computing brings new meaning to the phrase less is more," quips Christine Williams, director of engineering at Michigan Technical University. "When I say 'more,' I mean more ROI, more secure networks, and more time on my hands to do other things."

As Williams implies, the concept behind thin client computing is, at its core, reductionism on a large scale. While traditional fat-client PCs operate as independent, individual nodes on a larger network, thin clients act as identical parts of a larger whole, doing no processing of their own. Instead, applications run on a shared server or group of servers and are then, upon request, distributed over the network to terminals. With the right kind of software--software designed to manage multiple application sessions at a time--network managers can set up a thin client system to administer itself. When these technologists make a change at the server level, the change is immediately reflected in every thin client across the network.

Sound simple? Some technologists are insisting it is. According to Dana Gardner, senior analyst in the enterprise software division Boston-based Yankee Group, the beauty of the thin client approach to computing lies in its simplicity. Gardner hails the technology as "sensible," noting that anything that eases the day-to-day burden for network administrators and technical support representatives is a "gift." He adds that thin clients work well for colleges and universities because these organizations rarely need to deliver maximum services to all of their constituents.

"One of the niches where [thin clients] are becoming interesting is where you have constituents who don't necessarily need to stare at a computer terminal all day long," he says. "If you can centrally control the applications available to those users, and you can centrally guarantee the security of your network, why would you approach computing any other way?"

At the U Maryland's School of Business, thin client functionality is extended to a Web-based portal. Off-campus students now have access to a smorgasbord of applications and data.

But there are those who hold another perspective regarding thin. Some point to the danger of a server going down and disabling all thin clients in the system. Others note the limited memory and RAM associated with thin client systems, and the vulnerability to single virus outbreaks. And according to inside sources at Big Blue, IBM dropped the thin client approach two years ago, and evidently one of the reasons for the move was what IBM saw as the client's inflexibility in an increasingly mobile world. With thin clients, said IBM spokespeople, mobile solutions are a problem since users are tied to the LAN. For campuses--where mobile and wireless technology has taken off--that can mean restricted use of notebook computers in the classroom and lecture hall, no connectivity to wireless computing in the quad, and no plug-and-play at Starbucks or the student center.

Yet despite the cons espoused by Big Blue and others, thin client hardware can now be purchased from a variety of OEMs. Equipment providers such as Sun Microsystems (, Neoware (, and Wise Solutions ( have all established traction in the higher education market.

Key to every thin client operation, however, is the software itself: the engine that keeps the system running. Vendors such as Citrix (, Tarantella ( and Microsoft ( serve the education marketplace with such software products, and British vendors such as Getech ( and DAT Group ( have been pushing products for U.S. higher education environments, as well.

These vendors share the philosophy that when customers buy into thin client computing, they're buying the concept, and not a particular technology. Sure, vendors within their respective hardware and software verticals are competitive, but for most, functionality doesn't differ enough to draw daring distinctions between brands. Tisa Murdock, director of Strategic Alliances at Tarantella, notes that no matter which vendor a customer chooses, an investment in thin client technology is an investment in developing a comprehensive infrastructure, not just a purchase order for piecemeal technology to solve an immediate need.

"Thin client computing is a terrific way to centralize IT management," she says. "For educators and people inside academia, the solution just makes sense."

Williams, the technologist at MTU, says she turned to thin clients a few years ago as a last-ditch effort to avoid timely and costly maintenance issues with an army of PCs. She says that back in the late 1990s she was spending "inordinate" amounts of time managing the 200 public PCs across the Engineering department. In early 2001, after researching five different types of thin client hardware, the school opted for the Sun model dubbed Sun Ray. Next, Williams selected her thin client software, and went with the Metaframe Access Suite from Citrix, in conjunction with a Microsoft Terminal Solutions product that recreates a Windows desktop experience on every machine in the network.

In all, MTU bought 220 terminals at an average cost of $325 apiece. Today, the school's password-protected solution enables undergraduates and staff members to access Microsoft Office from any one of the thin client terminals in the department, and allows graduate students to access useful programs such as IntelliCAD and MathCAD from thin client terminals in their offices. And (dispelling some of the objections about remote computing) with the help of Citrix's proprietary Independent Computing Architecture (ICA), users also can log into the Citrix system remotely, gaining access to every program on the thin client network over Web-based interfaces from their computers at home or elsewhere.

Analysts at
Yankee Group
forecast that
between now and
colleges and
universities will
turn to thin
clients in

"The solution has enabled us to focus on planning and projects instead of fire fighting and maintenance," says Williams, who estimates she's saved anywhere from 22 to 30 percent in personnel and hardware replacement alone. "Flexibility, savings, and peace of mind; I'd say those are three things that would make any network administrator happy."

Technologists report similar results at Jamestown Community College (NY), where Network Systems Administrator Jeff Camp implemented thin client technology last year to reduce soaring hardware maintenance costs as well. Looking back, Camp estimates that the college's old, fat-client PCs were costing him between $900 and $1,500 apiece to maintain. When he discovered that for roughly $600 a pop he could install thin client bundles consisting of EON Preferred thin client appliances from Neoware, and Citrix Metaframe Presentation Server software, the choice was clear, he says, and he took the plunge immediately.

Today, with nearly 100 thin client stations up and running, Camp reports benefits above and beyond what he originally expected from the solution he chose. First, he says, the terminals offer a reduced desktop footprint, minimal technical maintenance, and centralized software management and licensing control. Beyond all of this, he adds, setup and configuration was a breeze, and system administrators perform regular security checks, anti-virus updates, and provisioning drills in minutes, all right off the server.

What's more, "Even though we have only a small technical staff, implementation wasn't much of a challenge at all," Camp says. "We have created a durable computing environment that allows students to readily access research information to advance their academic pursuits."

Other schools had different reasons for implementing thin client computing. The Health Sciences Center at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, for instance, opted for the technology to create a state-of-the-art classroom inside the Barry S. Coller Learning Center. Rather than design the classroom for wireless laptops or tablet PCs, Andy White, associate director for the Health Sciences Library, set out to research a variety of thin client solutions to install instead. Way back in 2000, after testing a bunch of products from a nearby manufacturer in Hauppauge, NY, White selected a mix of hardware from Neoware and Wise, and software from Citrix to make it all work smoothly. He also purchased four servers (for approximately $300,000 total) to ensure that applications were distributed enough to minimize downtime.

The solution, which included 43 terminals at an average of $300 apiece, worked wonders, he says. Today, students utilize the thin client classroom to access a variety of applications, including a program called "Virtual Adam" that enables them to investigate cross sections of a virtual three-dimensional corpse. Thanks to the Citrix Metaframe Presentation Server, students using the technology receive a complete desktop environment: When they sit down to use the thin clients, users don't even need to enter a password. As White explains it, the idea behind programming the system with this kind of functionality was to give users a seamless experience that would make them comfortable computing in such a communal environment. The result, he adds, has simplified computing for everyone.

"I used to joke with vendors that if I had a [technical] support call about a thin client, my answer was either: 'Turn it off and turn it back on,' or 'Hit the Enter key.'" White says, "When you're dealing with thin clients, it really is that easy."

Ease of use also was the deciding factor for technologists at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. There, Enterprise Architect Ernie Soffronoff says the school needed a solution that enabled 1,200 part-time students in its executive MBA program to remotely access critical applications and files from the comfort of their homes. Initially, the school looked into burning CD-ROMs with necessary files and distributing the discs to students for installation on their personal computers. When Soffronoff learned about thin clients, however, the university changed its tune completely.

Within weeks, Maryland had signed up to purchase nearly 100 public Sun Ray systems for use on campus. Beyond this hardware, the need for home access made Maryland's implementation unique. Instead of going with traditional software packages that only enabled public access on campus, the school opted for software from Tarantella designed to extend thin client functionality to a Web-based portal. With this functionality, students now have access to a smorgasbord of useful applications and data, including Oracle database programming tools, computer design tools, and financial research information. Even if an application isn't written for use over the Internet, once students log in to the portal with a standard password and user identification, they can use that application as if they were working off of a desktop.

"People pay a lot for an executive MBA program," he says. "If you can sell them on the convenience of being able to do much of their work from home, it's an added value that might inspire them to choose your program over another. For us, the decision [to go with thin clients] was a no-brainer."

Despite glowing reviews, none of these implementations was without pitfalls. At MTU, Williams reports there was a difficult "adjustment period" when the new terminals appeared on campus, and says users didn't like the fact that they had to key in their password every time they logged on. At Jamestown, Camp complains that because thin clients lack any sort of external disk drives, when students need to access and save large data files, they still have to trek to the library to use PCs so they can use floppy or Zip drives. Even at Maryland, Soffronoff says the system doesn't always work the way it's supposed to, and he laments the fact that the school fronted nearly $150,000 in servers, hardware, and software--just to get the system off the ground.

Still, technologists consider most of these snafus minor inconveniences; many of them hail thin clients as "the next big thing" in campus computing overall. White, at SUNY Stony Brook, predicts that by 2006, almost every college and university will be using thin clients as a way to cut costs and control the computing environment. Gardner, the analyst with Yankee Group, concurs, and forecasts that between now and 2005 colleges and universities will turn to thin clients in increasing numbers. Whatever happens, it's clear that computing on some campuses is already slimming down. Whether thin will be as "in" as some technologists predict remains to be seen.

Matt Villano is a freelance writer based in Moss Beach, CA.

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