Jun 06 2010

The Case for Mobile Thin Clients

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

July 2010 E-newsletter

Notebook Programs Transform Learning

Mobile Thin Clients

First Look: Windows Phone 7

Sony's Premium Notebook

Managing Mobile Encryption

Information needs to move easily, cheaply and securely. To fill those requirements,
many school districts 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 cash-strapped schools, mobile thin clients offer an opportunity to give
a computer to every student for a fraction of the cost and upkeep of a notebook,
says Gregory A. Partch, director of educational technology for Hudson Falls
Central School District in upstate New York.

Hudson Falls already uses about 1,800 desktop thin clients, mostly HP
or 5540 clients. Partch is seeking funding to launch a mobile thin-client
program next fall. He plans to distribute 180 thin-client netbooks to sixth-grade
science and English language arts students, followed by another 180 over the
next two years.

“Other deployments of one-to-one computing have failed because the
schools have had to deal with the operating systems and desktops for each
student,” says Partch. “In a thin-client environment, the one-to-one
connection isn't the device, it's ubiquitous access to the cloud
– and the cloud is much less likely to fail.”

Into the Halls

The Pawtucket School Department in Rhode Island has had a thin-client environment
for the past seven years. It started by retrofitting aging PCs and installing
Linux-based thin-client software, says Technology Director Michael St. Jean.

Now, the district runs some 2,000 dedicated thin clients. Besides stationary
classroom and computer-lab thin clients, the district operates about 100 notebook-size
units, such as the HP
, as well as a few hundred mobile carts with desktop thin clients
and wireless bridges mounted to them. Instructors can wheel the carts into
classrooms and set up ad hoc computer labs.

“From the IT standpoint, thin clients give us a single place to manage
and install applications and consolidate printer resources,” says St.
Jean. “They're also more secure. If a thin notebook is stolen
or lost, there's no sensitive student data on these systems. A few years
ago one of them was stolen, but word got out pretty quickly that these things
are no good when they're off the school network, so they're actually
just left alone.”


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

Both Partch and St. Jean say their districts' strong network infrastructures
and reliable wireless connections make mobile thin computing possible.

“Fortunately for our district, our core network infrastructure, switching
and wireless environment are very solid,” says St. Jean. “If you
have sporadic wireless coverage or poor wiring and switching, I wouldn't
recommend going this route.”

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.