The Con-Way Transportation case
Six years ago, Con-Way Transportation Services viewed TCO as the main justification for migrating from IBM mainframes and dumb terminals to a thin-client architecture, according to Mark Ozbun, the company's senior systems administration manager. An internal ROI study concluded that thin clients needed replacement less often than PCs and were easier to manage in terms of the desktop image, help desk support and virus protection, particularly for a geographically distributed company such as Con-Way.

Another major factor in Con-Way's decision was recognition of the benefits of centralised data and storage management, Ozbun says. "With local PC hard drives, there's a question of whether users are backing files up," he says. "Using our SAN technology, we have central control and visibility."

The transportation services firm currently has 4,500 Wyse 3350 thin clients installed around the country, supported by Windows servers running Citrix Presentation Server, as well as HDS Lightning 9970 SAN-connected storage subsystems.

"Bringing end-user data back into the data centre means less risk of information loss, greater security in accessing data and applications, and lower TCO," says Stephen Nunn, a partner who heads the data centre technology and operations practice at systems integrator Accenture. "Many of our clients maintain quite sensitive, mission-critical data on desktops and laptops and don't necessarily back them up diligently. So if the hard drive goes down, is lost or stolen, it's hard to recover from that loss."

According to Greg Schmidt, HP's thin-client product marketing manager, "One of the beauties of thin-client computing is that if something goes wrong with your local desktop system, all the data is at the data centre, 100% reliably backed up, and I don't even have to schedule my own backups."

When he attends meetings, Schmidt uses a notebook computer equipped with Microsoft Remote Desktop Protocol. The notebook acts like a thin client, accessing data and applications on an HP bladeserver. During one recent meeting, the notebook's hard drive failed. "I went back to the office, called up the client, and boom, all my stuff was there," says Schmidt.

Nunn says, "Thin-client architectures should always be considered in any remedial action when data protection is an issue." Many of Accenture's clients, particularly in regulated industries like finance, tend to frown on local C drive information stores because of the danger of viruses and the potential of improper usage of data.

Thin-client architectures also allow IT to take control of data integrity, Nunn points out. When users are sharing a single version of a file on a centralised disk subsystem, administrators don't have to worry about multiple, often inconsistent versions of the same file scattered across desktops at various sites.

Centralisation isn't a panacea
Centralising files doesn't automatically eliminate multiple versions and inconsistencies, however. Indeed, an enterprise-scale thin-client deployment tends to motivate IT departments to clean up end user files - with end users' active participation, of course - and to institute a more rigorous, centralised approach to data and storage resource management.

Otherwise, Nunn warns, escalating end-user storage demands are likely to put a large dent in available storage capacity - and the IT budget. SAN-attached storage subsystems are a lot more expensive than local PC hard drives. And, unlike PC hard drives, they have no built-in limitations on the amount of capacity available to a given end user.

Ozbun states, "At Con-Way, we had no reason to do storage housekeeping before we implemented thin clients." Now that users store files centrally, however, the company is seeing capacity demands growing at a rapid rate. As a result, Ozbun's group is evaluating tools that track end-user storage utilisation and impose quotas. As he notes, "We want people to start thinking about what to get rid of, and not just save everything."

Another way to tackle the problem is through hierarchical storage management, which involves moving ageing or less important data to lower-cost NAS or Serial Advanced Technology Attachment devices. Con-Way is considering setting up storage resource management policies that move files of a certain age off high-end HDS disks to slower, cheaper models, Ozbun says.

Data housecleaning is only one of the tasks that confront IT staffs during a thin-client deployment. They must also determine which applications and types of workers can benefit from the technology.

"Thin clients aren't for everybody," says Schmidt. "They work best for end users with well-defined software needs - bank tellers, some office workers, call centre managers, for example."

Once the technology takes hold in an organisation, however, it's likely to spread. At the city of Dayton, for example, the current ratio of thin clients to PCs is roughly 50-50. However, a "massive purchase" of Wyse Blazer blade servers and Wyse 9450 terminals, now in the works, will bring the city close to its goal of 90 percent thin clients, according to Hill, who declares, "I think thin clients are one of the greatest, most under-appreciated technologies in the world."