When William Hill became director of IT at the city of Dayton, Ohio, in 1988, one of the first major projects he tackled was to rein in the total cost of ownership of desktop clients. At the time, some 2,200 of the city's 3,000 employees were using a mixed bag of desktop hardware, operating systems and applications.

"We had no less than 10 different word-processing programs and untold numbers of database management systems," Hill says. Corporate data resided on six ageing mainframes, which could only be accessed by 80 dumb terminals via an old 9.6Kbit/sec. network, he adds. Administering software updates and patches was a nightmare. Furthermore, valuable data residing on PC hard drives was inaccessible to other end users and unmanageable by IT administrators.

After exploring various alternatives, Hill settled on a city-wide migration to a thin-client architecture. This was not a casual decision. It meant stripping end users' desktops of all local computing power and hard drives, and moving about 100 applications and huge amounts of data onto a central corporate network.

$700,000 in annual savings
Today, Dayton uses a combination of Winterm 1200LE thin clients from Wyse Technology, as well as PCs running Winterm 9450XE and 9455XL thin-client software. The thin clients act as terminals, running applications and calling up data on multiuser Windows servers running Microsoft's Windows Terminal Server and Citrix Metaframe (now Presentation Server). Thin clients in 123 buildings across the city are linked to the servers via a city-wide fibre optic network. End-user files have been removed from local hard drives and consolidated onto EMC network-attached storage (NAS) and storage-area network (SAN)-connected storage devices.

The advantages of the thin-client architecture have more than made up for the upfront pain and effort, Hill reports. The city saves about $700,000 a year, primarily from lower client maintenance costs, along with reduced data and software administration expenses.

"When I started here, we had 75 IT employees; today we have 36," says Hill. "We couldn't possibly have done that if we had all PCs. It's easier to maintain and control because we're not saving data on disparate PCs but on a central location."

Hill's staff regularly backs up data from EMC's 4700 Clariion SAN to tape libraries from StorageTek. Furthermore, he notes, "because users share applications and files, we're not so likely to have 150 different versions of the same document sitting on 150 different PC hard drives all over the city."

Now, end users can access and share data that used to be tucked away on someone's hard drive, or on the mainframe. Reports Hill, "Everyone now has their own H slice of drive on the SAN, and every department has a P drive where they can put collaborative efforts that can be shared by anyone in the city."

Thin-client inroads
The city of Dayton is on the leading edge of a slow but accelerating corporate move away from autonomous PC computing, research analysts claim. According to a September 2004 IDC report, thin-client revenues will realise a compound annual growth rate of approximately 20 percent per year from 2005 to 2008. In addition, the devices' share of the PC market will double from 1 percent to 2 percent during that period, the report predicts.

One driver behind this growth is the recent emergence of strong players and mature products. Major players such as Microsoft, Citrix and Hewlett-Packard are providing greater manageability and transparency, along with application and client support on the server side. Wyse, Neoware Systems and HP are the market leaders on the client side. Players such as Tarantella (Canaveral IQ), Novell (Zenworks) and Citrix provide value-added capabilities like embedded security management tools and load balancing across server farms.

More importantly, the IDC report states, enterprise decision-makers are starting to recognise the potentially huge total cost of ownership (TCO benefits that a thin-client architecture can offer. When compared with desktop models, a Windows-based terminal (or thin-client) model has 35 percent to 40 percent lower TCO overall, according to an August 2004 report from Gartner entitled, "When Thin Clients Can Narrow your TCO."

According to the report, the majority of these savings come from end-user operations costs, which are between 40 percent and 72 percent lower for Windows-based terminals than they are for desktop models. Some of the most dramatic savings come from operations areas like problem resolution, user adds and changes, disk and file management, storage capacity planning, backup, archiving and recovery.

Indeed, as the Dayton case illustrates, a big chunk of the return on investment from thin-client deployments stems from the long-term advantages of putting end-user files on the corporate SAN, under the control of IT professionals. This can provide a huge payback in IT productivity and effectiveness in key areas like security and reliability, regulatory compliance and more efficient utilisation of storage resources.

"Centralising data is one of the reasons why companies implement thin clients," says David Friedlander, a senior analyst at Forrester Research. For example, a Forrester client in the communications industry deployed a thin-client architecture to facilitate the flow of new product data to users at its call centres, as well as to keep files synchronised and up to date in a far more efficient and timely fashion.

Tomorrow in Part 2: How to migrate from mainframes but keep yoour data centralised.