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The Case for Mobile Thin Clients

IT departments save money and increase security with these new devices.

July 2010 E-newsletter

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Information needs to move easily, cheaply and securely. To fill those requirements,
many state agencies are taking a close look at mobile thin clients: portable
devices with minimal storage and processing power that deliver networked applications
and data via a wireless connection. These clients can go virtually anywhere
and run tasks that full-powered notebook systems can, but they're less
expensive and more secure.

Yet, mobile thin clients remain a fairly well-kept secret, accounting for
less than 4 percent of all thin devices expected to sell worldwide in 2010,
says Bob O'Donnell, vice president for clients and displays for IDC.
In part, that's because many organizations run thin-client software
on existing hardware such as full-fledged notebooks, which aren't included
in these thin-client projections.

For the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Wyse Technology X90cw mobile
thin clients running Citrix Systems software add a layer of security users
can't get with ordinary notebooks. Because data and applications are
maintained on central servers, there's no risk of an information spill
if a device is lost or stolen, says Corey Kos, infrastructure manager for
the department.

"We saw Citrix and mobile thin clients as a way to not only leverage
our virtual environment, but also protect data by not letting it go out the
door," he says. "If I'm not signed into Citrix, then my
Wyse client is nothing more than a glorified Net kiosk. I'd have no
qualms about handing it to a hacker and saying, ‘Go for it.' He
won't be able to do much."

The department launched a Citrix thin-client pilot with about 100 users.
Eventually, Kos expects to migrate 1,000 agency officials to thin clients,
with about 10 percent using mobile devices. The mobile platforms will range
from Wyse devices to "sanitized" notebooks with no local storage
and even a few Apple iPads.

Along for the Ride

For the city of Rogers, Ark., the question was whether to outfit its police
cruisers, fire trucks and emergency vehicles with ruggedized notebooks running
Microsoft Windows or thin clients running Citrix. When it compared cost and
ease of deployment, there was no contest, says IT Director Rufus Ramey.

"We could buy 90 Panasonic Toughbooks at more than $3,000 apiece, or
90 Wyse X90s at around $700 each," he says. "And as I explained
to the city council at the time, going with Toughbooks would also mean having
to hire another full-time employee just to maintain them."

Another consideration is the maintenance load on the Rogers staff. Software
needs regular updating, notes Ramey, and it would take about 40 minutes to
handle an application refresh on each notebook. By contrast, his staff can
update all of the city's thin clients in about 10 minutes. "We
simply update the golden image [a copy of the original system configuration]
on the server," he says. "Our users log out, log back in and receive
the updated image. There's no way we could have met our aggressive go-live
schedule using Toughbooks."

46%

The percentage of organizations that have not established security standards
for handheld or portable devices

Source: Proofpoint Report, Outbound Email and Data Loss Prevention
in Today's Enterprise, 2009

The biggest challenge for both the Alaska department and the Arkansas city
is maintaining a consistent high-speed connection. Kos, who jokes that Alaska
is famous for its "third-world bandwidth," says he spends time
optimizing Citrix to make better use of available bandwidth. Ramey adds that
"connectivity has been our Achilles' heel." To address the
bandwidth challenge, he's been working aggressively with his current
telecom provider to resolve the latency and connectivity issues the city has
experienced.

Future Factors

A mobile thin client is ideal for an environment in which users move from
building to building and have good connectivity, says O'Donnell. Beyond
that, he says, "if there's no guarantee of strong wireless bandwidth
or a reliable 3G connection, mobile thin clients become more problematic."

Still, as fourth-generation networks come online and cloud computing becomes
ubiquitous, such bandwidth issues likely will become less prevalent.

"In general, people are moving toward what I call a ‘portable
digital identity' where their ability to function isn't dependent
on a particular hardware device because all their stuff lives in the cloud,
enabled by software like Citrix or VMware," says O'Donnell. "At
that point, it doesn't matter whether you use a thin client, a PC or
something like an iPad to access it."

Questions to Ask Before Going Mobile

  • How's your wireless infrastructure? You need
    bandwidth to spare and solid coverage wherever your users roam; otherwise,
    access will suffer.
  • Are there any software license limitations? Make sure
    you have the rights to run your programs in a thin-client environment.
  • Got batteries? Even thin devices eventually run out
    of juice. Invest in spare batteries and consider setting up charging stations
    in common areas.
  • What are your users used to? If they're comfortable
    running Windows, you will need to prepare them for the transition to a
    new interface if you choose a non-Microsoft operating system or Linux.
Jun 06 2010

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