Mobile thin clients are easy to manage, which makes them a major timesaver for the IT staff at Prescott College, says Gary Nye. "We have a small IT staff, so anything that saves us time is tremendously helpful."

Sep 30 2010

Thin Computer Clients Offer Campuses Flexibility

Colleges find that mobile thin clients offer costs savings, flexibility and more efficient management.

Colleges find that mobile thin clients offer costs savings, flexibility and more efficient management.

Highly rated academics and the mountains of central Arizona have led to an ever-expanding student body at Prescott College. But as the student population has grown, the college realized it needed a fresh way to support incoming freshmen who participate in a month-long orientation that includes everything from an introduction to Prescott's teaching methods to backpacking trips and yoga seminars.

To support these activities, the IT department created a mobile computer lab that can be set up and taken down in short order, wherever it's needed. The lab uses 40 mobile thin clients, which save the college time and money, yet offer flexible computing power.

"Our existing computer labs were not large enough to handle the increasing number of incoming students at each orientation, so we implemented a mobile thin client lab to address the space issue for our new student orientations," says Gary Nye, director of IT at Prescott College.

"Thin clients are good options because they offer cost savings, provide flexibility in computer usage, and allow IT departments to offer solutions to many resource issues," Nye says.

Gaining Ground

Thin client computers – small desktop devices with no hard drives and limited functionality – are gaining ground.

Why? These devices communicate with centralized servers that store all the apps and data and handle all the processing. Add wireless networking capabilities and the thin client becomes mobile and ultimately more flexible.

For Prescott College, mobile thin clients are proving their value. The college uses HP's 2533t, which is a notebook-style thin client that includes an embedded version of Windows XP with Internet Explorer 7. Since setting up the mobile lab, the IT team has added Adobe Reader, Adobe Flash Player and Java for accessing the college's online learning management system.

Each of the thin clients has a wireless card, and Linksys wireless routers offer network and web access. The thin clients can also connect to the LAN if the mobile lab is set up in a room that has wired access. Nye says he and his team chose this specific HP unit because it's simple to transport and store, a feature that makes it easier to quickly set up and tear down the lab. The thin clients are stored and moved from location to location in a mobile cart.

Thin clients have been touted as a less expensive alternative to desktops and notebooks, but in Prescott's case, the notebook-style thin clients cost about the same as a conventional notebook. But that's not where the real savings are, according to Nye.

Because the thin clients are smaller in size, storage space costs less and thin clients consume less power than a conventional notebook. Most important, management costs are significantly less, especially because of the embedded operating system.

Lessons Learned

Prescott's success with mobile thin clients should serve as a lesson to many colleges, especially those reluctant to implement new technologies.

"It is pretty axiomatic that higher education institutions adapt technology with a lag of several years, in general," says Ron Bonig, research director for higher education at Gartner.

Bonig says adoption of technology can be irregular. "By that, I mean that classroom adoption of technology can be very instructor-specific, and some teachers adopt and adapt the latest technology rapidly, but that is for their classes. Institutions as a whole usually adapt a bit later, and even then it is rarely ubiquitous."

Other colleges are discovering the power of mobile thin clients. The Los Angeles Community College District (LACCD) is using HP's thin clients and virtualization technology in a variety of areas.


The estimated annual reduction in energy costs from using thin clients

Source: Gartner

Jorge Mata, LACCD's CIO, says the district uses them in computer labs, administrative offices and classrooms, largely because of the ease of management and flexibility, but security and reduced power consumption are added benefits.

Mata says the district's HP solution includes HP BladeSystem bc2800 Blade PCs in conjunction with HP Compaq t5730w thin clients and 4410t mobile thin clients from HP. The HP 4410t machines are used by the college's systems administrators so they can work at home or on the road.

Caregivers at the University of Colorado Hospital have access to nearly 600 Wyse Technology mobile thin clients with embedded Windows XP. The devices connect to all of the hospital's backend systems, giving caregivers easy access to information. Eric Harris, CU Hospital's desktop systems architect, says the thin clients use 20 percent (or less) of the electricity consumed by the power-hungry PCs mounted on mobile carts that the thin clients replaced.

"Power consumption on a typical PC might get a couple hours of battery life, assuming the battery is still in good shape," Harris says. "With the thin clients, we have enough battery power for a full 12-hour shift."

CU Hospital's experience with mobile thin clients has been so good that Harris now has his sights on Wyse's Xenith Zero Client that runs over a Citrix Systems client. "We're a Citrix shop and are starting to do desktop virtualization. The Xenith is advertised as plug-and-play to set it up, and it's optimized for the delivery of a virtual desktop," Harris says.

Prescott College, too, has plans for leveraging thin clients for use beyond the mobile computer lab. Nye and his team are considering deploying thin clients at public-use terminals within the library and are also looking into using thin clients and the college's terminal server environment for several work-study computer stations.

"I cannot stress enough the management benefits of using a thin client environment for certain applications within a campus setting," Nye says. "The time savings in managing the thin clients versus a conventional computer lab is crucial to our success. We have a small IT staff, so anything that saves us time is tremendously helpful."

How Prescott's Mobile Lab Works

Prescott College's mobile computer lab is typically set up whenever a request comes in for a large lab environment that needs to support more than 15 users, which is often the case for orientation sessions attended by 30 or more students. Prescott's permanent computer labs house 15 to 20 computers.

"The thin clients, because of their size and power requirements, make it simple to configure any room of sufficient size with up to 40 workstations," says Gary Nye, the college's director of IT.

And because each thin client comes with its own embedded and preloaded operating system, the IT team spends less time managing the hardware than it would if it were setting up conventional notebooks. "Add to that a Citrix or Terminal Server environment, and the thin clients become very flexible workstations with minimal management requirements," Nye says.

It's that ease of management and quick setup that make mobile thin clients so appealing. On the day the mobile lab is needed, the mobile cart is rolled to the chosen classroom where the IT team sets up the necessary network access and any power strips (if the event is to last longer than the devices' battery life).

"Within 30 minutes, the thin clients have been laid out, powered up and the room is ready to go," Nye says. "Once the event is completed, the tear-down is just as simple because of the notebook design. We are able to power everything down, close up the thin clients and return all of the equipment to the cart."

<p>Steve Craft</p>

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