Cut! Showtime reaps the TOC benefits of a thin client model

Showtime has been reaping the rewards of the thin client model since mid-1998. But thin clients generally go against the conventional IT thinking in the region.
But is this going to change with enhancements to Windows 2000 Terminal Services and Citrix’s MetaFrame?

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By  Greg Wilson Published  January 28, 2001

Introduction|~||~||~|Walking into the petrol station one morning and two guys were setting up a PC. The PC was most likely part of a broader IT strategy to automate the flow of sales information across the business. From the Compaq machine, the shop manager records the day’s sales and then dials into the company intranet. When the sales data arrives it is no doubt sliced & diced with various business intelligence tools enabling the retail chain to develop its business strategy.

Regardless, of the flow of sales data from the customer-facing petrol station to the boardroom, the PC in the petrol station appears to be another testament to the undeniable momentum of the ‘fat’ client/server computing model. Whatever happened to the idea of thin clients? For the most part the thin computing model has struggled to win mind share amongst IT managers, many of whom were happily installing fat clients, to empower the end user and increase the automation in the workplace. Regardless of the management issues and cost it brought.

Enhancements in management software, particularly at the networking level, and reluctance on the part of enterprises to backtrack on earlier investments in smaller servers and fat desktops have conspired to keep the thin client on the periphery of many IT manager’s thoughts.

Despite the failure of early network computing efforts — such as Sun Microsystems’ Java Station in the late 90s — the thin client model still holds value, and as server-based computing emerges as the next computing paradigm, the thin client model is gaining traction in the minds of many IT managers, as an easy to manage, cost effective solution for customer facing roles, such as POS devices, data entry, ERP and remote access. But ironically, the thin client environment is no longer seen as a way to overturn Microsoft’s desktop hegemony. Instead what has emerged, as the predominant thin client model is a way to run Windows apps from a server using Citrix and NT Terminal Server.

Showtime TV has been it’s running pan Gulf operation on a Citrix MetaFrame/NT 4.0 Terminal Server environment since 1998. Since that time the digital broadcaster has grown from a 12 man office in Dubai, with satellite offices in Jeddah and Cairo with just a skeleton staff, into the region’s largest pay for TV service with nearly 200,000 subscribers and additional offices in Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman and Casablanca. “The technology has played a crucial role in enabling Showtime to expand its reach,” says IT director for Middle East and North Africa, Khosrow Afrasiabi. “The company has expanded loads and we wouldn’t have been able to do it without technologies, such as remote access to the database,” enabled by Citrix explains Afrasiabi.

||**||Current environment|~||~||~| Showtime’s current IT environment supports 35 users scattered around the Gulf, connected by leased lines, back to the main customer database, hosted in Dubai. When customers go into a showroom in Saudi, the sales agent can logon to the system and access the appropriate customer history in real time. The thin client network also runs a series of workflow and forms applications to handle specific customer requests, such as an upgrade or downgrade of satellite services. “Before, if a customer went into a showroom the staff blindly filled in the forms or contracts without knowing the customer’s history. The showrooms have direct access to the information that they need. They can solve the problem in five minutes instead of calling Dubai for customer [data],” says Afrasiabi.

The Citrix solution has proved cost effective in a number of ways. The up front capital costs for hardware have been vastly cut back — depending on the role of the individual and the office that they are in, Showtime employees are using everything from the latest spec machines to 75 MHz Pentium 1 dinosaurs. All the processing power is provided by the central Compaq, 700 MHz Pentium III server, hosted in Dubai. The Citrix/Terminal Server solution has saved ‘hundreds of thousands,’ of dirhams in hardware costs alone, says Showtime’s IT director.

The alternative, according to Afrasiabi, would be to run five smaller servers scattered through Showtime’s regional offices, which would generate greater management and software licensing issues and demand between four and five extra IT staff to be on hand in each office. “There are many issues to do with costs effectiveness; one is skills — we don’t need to have as many staff, we don’t have to have separate, dedicated networks, we have one central backup, one central point of administration and maintenance,” commented Afrasiabi.

Regardless of the cost savings achieved by Showtime the work of Afrasiabi and his team goes against the common IT practice in the region — the majority of organisations still prefer to install full fat clients. Afcomp, a pan-Gulf reseller for Citrix based in Dubai, admits that there has been a big educational void to fill since it started promoting the software in August 1999. “Server based computing and thin clients is difficult to grasp for many,” says Dean Polley, divisional manager, of Afcomp. “We’ve set up a demo centre, where we can get the potential customer on site and show him the benefits of this model… [Whether] its remote data entry, reporting or accessing ERP applications.”

Microsoft’s product marketing manager for the region, Haider Salloum emphasised that the lack of Arabic support on Windows NT 4.0 Terminal Server edition contributed to the slow local take up Terminal Server. However, with Windows 2000 Terminal Services, the embedded Unicode enables the support of Arabic applications on the server.
But there still remains the problem of user resistance to thin clients — not everybody is willing to give up their PC. “Traditional PC users might not accept the technology because they fear that they are going backwards by returning to a terminal environment,” says Peter Lowber, research director, Gartner Group. “Even if it’s appropriate technically speaking — which it is in many of the cases — there is a lot psychological fear, hesitation and lack of acceptance amongst traditional, knowledge worker types for a thin client model,” he adds.

||**||Regardless of user fear|~||~||~| Flying in the face of end user concerns, Lowber predicts that more and more organisations are going to turn to thin clients for at least some element of their IT environments. Catalysts to the expected growth of thin client projects has been the delivery of Windows 2000 Server and Advanced Server, which includes Terminal Services integrated into the kernel of the operating system, “making it more efficient and reliable,” than NT Terminal Server, says Lowber.

Alongside improvements in Terminal Services, Citrix is on the verge of releasing MetaFrame Extended Platform at the tail end of this month, which incorporates greater, load balancing across server farms, resource and installation management functionality in a modular architecture. Currently with MetaFrame 1.8, it’s technically difficult to manage more than one server farm. However, in the next generation release, the user and application data is held in a separate database — not dependant on the server farm — making it a lot easier to scale management functionality across several server farms.

Enhancements to Terminal Services and MetaFrame makes Windows server-based applications a viable alternative to many larger organisations, predicts Lowber. The greater scalability of Terminal Services and Citrix MetaFrame “will definitely contribute to bigger and greater number of deployments… However, I don’t think it’s appropriate to consider Terminal services as a desktop replacement,” cautions the analyst.

There is already evidence to suggest that more companies in the region are considering a Windows 2000 Terminal Services thin client environments. Over the course of the next two months, Khosrow Afrasiabi, is planning to more than double the number of Citrix terminal users around the Gulf. To support the additional users another processor will be added to its server, and — once a testing stage is complete — an upgrade to Win 2000 Terminal Services and the Citirx MetaFrame 1.8 for Windows 2000 is expected.

As reported in ACN/16/01, Dubai’s Al Tayer Group is nearing the end of a thin client rollout, as part of a wider drive to enhance the manageability of IT environment. Eventually, the group IT general manager, Evan Powell, intends to take Al Tayer’s entire IT environment to a server-based computing, browser enabled model. However, the initial stage in the project has been the rapid rollout of 200 thin clients, running a variety of forms, workflow applications, office productivity tools and access to the group’s intranet — all through a browser. The group has used a variety of old hardware and Acer thin client machines with smart card readers. “One of the compelling reasons for thin clients is that you can use any device,” Powell told ACN, last month. “We had a pilot running for around three months and we learned a lot lessons. The pilot project was then spread throughout the group, from the local to remote sites, covering all the different scenarios we had,” he adds.

||**||Aiming for server computing|~||~||~|With the successful rollout of the thin clients and a rapid rollout of an ERP package in the first half of 2001||**||

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