Trimming the fat

Despite its ability to reduce total cost of ownership, increase reliability and ease management headaches, few organisations in the Middle East have implemented thin client solutions

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By  Matthew Southwell Published  April 23, 2002

Introduction|~||~||~|The benefits of a thin client environment are well known: reduced administration, lower total cost of ownership, rapid application deployment, greater reliability and improved remote access. Regardless, few Middle East companies have taken the thin client option so far.

Johann Muller, product & marketing manager, Sun Microsystems Middle East & Africa believes the reason for this is that Citrix is a ‘hard sell’ compared to the desktop alternative. “If you want to sell a PC you put it on the shelf and it sells. If you put a thin client on the shelf people look at it and say ‘what is this?’ You have to convince a person and this is much harder, so many people don’t bother,” he says.

Evan Powell, group IT manager at Al Tayer, argues that this is because the thin client model is sold as a technology solution rather than a business solution. “If you are going to talk to a manager or a director about thin client computing they just glaze over. If you talk to them about a business benefit and a real change in the way that things are happening then it makes sense,” he says.

The level at which thin client solutions are sold into organisations exacerbates the problem. As Peter Lowber, a senior research analyst with Gartner Group, explains, “the good news for Citrix is that they have a good reseller channel. However, the bad news for Citrix is also that they have a good reseller channel. They don’t have a sales force to go in and sell at a high level in an organisation.”

At the local level, the issue is further clouded by the implementer’s apparent reluctance to take ownership of customer deployments. “Currently there are no specialised companies in the thin client [arena], perhaps only Al Futtaim, and they can only install Citrix for you. There is no organisation capable of delivering a total solution,” says Citrix end user, Lotfy Sabra Mohammed, Dubai National School.

Syed Abdul Muqeeth, systems administrator at DULSCO, is currently experiencing similar problems with the pre-sales cycle as the company looks to migrate it’s ERP application to a thin client environment. Neither the application vendor nor Citrix has provided adequate project resources.

“When we went to JD Edwards I had hoped that Citrix would support me. However, there was no strong confidence given by either Citrix or JD Edwards that the migration would work. Therefore, it was like R&D work for us,” he complains.

In addition to the region’s far from perfect sales model there are underlying cultural obstacles for thin client computing to overcome in the Middle East. The reluctance of local organisations to share knowledge is well documented and Basem Taleb, IT manager at Dubai World Trade Centre, argues that this is magnified when it comes to thin clients.
“The mentality is that people want to keep their data to themselves, they are very worried [about thin client computing],” he says.

Investment is also a key issue. Lowber says that, globally, there is a fear in IT departments that the dollars that they have invested in PCs and the infrastructure will be wasted by moving to a thin client environment. Locally, this fear is compounded by the typical IT buying cycles, where cash rich companies upgrade their hardware whether it is necessary or not. “The Middle East has a lot of money so they keep changing their PCs. It has become a habit so every year or 16 months they upgrade their PCs,” says Rajesh Gadgil, technical sales manager, VXL International.

The cost issue is, perhaps, the defining factor in the debate surrounding thin client computing. The greatest advantage of the model is its supposed impact on the total cost of ownership (TCO). Analysts at US firm Doculabs say that large organisations can save over 50% in the first year of deployment. Gartner Group puts the figure at a more sombre annual 30%.

||**||II|~||~||~|DWTC was able to reduce TCO on its initial implementation by reusing “dozens of old PCs,” as was Al Tayer Group. Powell explains that the group had a room full of old Intel 386s that it was going to scrap because it could not run Windows 2000 on them. Yet, by deploying a thin client solution, the group had a room full of fully functional Office XP PCs and was able to reduce its TCO by 60%.

Despite these examples, not everyone is convinced that thin client computing delivers hardware savings. Hewlett-Packard (HP), for example, has railed against the thin client model as it has looked to push its own cut down, non-thin client machine — the ePC. Graham Porter, marketing director at HP Middle East, believes that savings made through the deployment of thin client terminals is minimal when you consider initial outlay and training costs.

“If you look at thin clients in this region there is a trend of advertising ‘minus the monitor’ so once you put the monitor on it the price goes up. And you still have to put a keyboard and a mouse on it,” he says.

The popularity of unbranded PCs in the Middle East also throws a spanner in the works. Thomas Greve, corporate access product manager, Compaq Gulf & Levant, admits that “an unbranded PC would come close, perhaps even on a par with a thin client.”

Also, any savings made on client side hardware may end up being spent on the server side. Greve says that while a thin client terminal may cost less to acquire than a PC, an organisation will have to spend more on its server, its software, additional storage capacity and extra bandwidth.

Sun’s Muller concurs and states that to run a 500 terminal operation on Citrix you need quite a few “fat servers” sitting at the back to drive it. “This is big money because you are talking big memory and lots of CPU power,” he says.

“The licensing involved is quite expensive as well. You are not saving much where licensing is concerned. In the end, your TCO model doesn’t quite pan out as you expected it to,” he adds.

DWTC has already suffered from the additional cost of extra licenses. While it saved on its initial deployment, Taleb explains that the quotation it received for an additional 20 licenses was almost equivalent to buying new PCs.

“We were surprised at the cost of the additional licensing. If you combine the cost of the two licenses [from Citrix and Microsoft] you have a cost that is almost the same as a PC, especially as PC prices are dropping,” he says.
Such complications have led to a reassessment of the TCO benefits that thin client computing delivers. As a result, the original ‘it reduces your costs across the board’ argument has become more sophisticated.

Gartner’s Lowber explains that the actual TCO benefits an organisation is likely to receive depend on the extent to which best practices of managing fat-client PCs are adopted. “According to our analysis, the overall TCO benefit for Windows terminals over well-managed PCs is only about 1%, but it is about 32% compared with unmanaged PCs,” he says.

The upgrade treadmill is also taken into account in today’s revised TCO equation. Graham Fisher, senior analyst at Bloor Research, says that rather than plunge into a thin client deployment, an organisation should wait and naturally upgrade their infrastructure to thin client.

||**||III|~||~||~| “If an organisation has just completed an infrastructure upgrade then it is not going to jump into thin client computing. Instead, it is going to migrate when it is at the end of its three or five year buying cycle. This makes the cost far more palatable,” he says.

Locally, both DWTC and Al Tayer Group have incorporated the rollout of their thin client environments into existing buying cycles to avoid major cost. “[The] biggest saving is in the long run. You are getting off the upgrade treadmill immediately in hardware terms,” says Powell.

This sophistication of the TCO argument has also led to an increased focus on the other benefits thin client computing delivers aside from hardware savings. These include reduced management headaches, better exploitation of existing networks and the removal of application compatibility issues.

Al Tayer’s Powell explains that upgrading software is just an overnight job as his support staff no longer has to visit each PC, load the application and configure it for each user.

“We can deploy an application overnight. For example, we upgraded from Office 2000 to Office XP overnight,” he explains.

User support also becomes easer once applications are up and running due to the ability to shadow users in Citrix. Nael Sarhan, network & technical support manager at Kuwait’s Public Warehousing Company (PWC), explains that he is now able to step in and support a user session and fix problems before they are reported.

Hands-on management capabilities also helps with new users and those unused to a technology environment. Mohammed Faraidooni, system administrator at Dubai World Trade Centre, uses the example of the centre’s kitchens where a PC is required but seldom used.

“The chef, for example, may have never have used a computer in his life and not know how to save a Word document. I can shadow him and teach him online,” he says.
Even better, this type of support does not have to be done from within the organisation. Powell explains that the ability to offer remote IT management allows his team to offer 24x7 support to the group’s users.

In addition, if the company is creating a new user site, the team can have it up and running without being present, as long as someone is able to install the ‘plug and play’ hardware.

“We had the case recently where we were granted the Ford franchise. At extremely short notice we had to implement a lot of users at a remote site. That is an IT nightmare, but using thin client model the users were functioning a day later,” he says.

Such ease of management has a great impact on the staffing levels required to support an organisation. Sarhan explains that it takes less than 10% of an IT manager’s time to manage PWC’s thin client environment. Powell adds that the people savings he has made over three years are “crazy.” It now it takes only three people to support more than 700 users, he says.

More importantly though, he adds, the rest of the IT team have been able to move away from the day-to-day support of users and focus on value add applications, which in turn helps Al Tayer sharpen the group’s competitive edge.

On the application side, PWC has benefited from the ability to deliver extended access to its own warehousing software that it was unable to web enable. Now users are able to log onto the application and enter their own data, which helps reduce support costs as well as bringing increased visibility to the company’s supply chain.

Gartner’s Lowber says that despite such application advantages it is the exploitation of existing networks that currently makes thin client computing such an attractive proposition. “Next to people, the network is the biggest ongoing cost in an IT budget. Thin clients — which provide remote access over low-bandwidth networks — can exploit the existing network infrastructure,” he says.

VXL International’s Gadgil concurs and says that because thin client solutions require nothing more than 10 M/bits/s of bandwidth, “there is no need for fibre optics or Gigabit networks.”

||**||IV|~||~||~|Al Tayer is already taking advantage of such reduced network requirements. As its users tend to require 8 K/bit per user at most, it is able to use simple frame relay links with ISDN back-up. It has also enabled the group to extend remote access quickly into areas where networks are not so advanced. For example, Al Tayer is opening a warehouse in Muscat that will be connected through a virtual private network (VPN).

These additional benefits of thin client computing are, according to the vendors, currently driving a growth in local interest. VXL International reports an increased interest in thin clients in recent months and is predicting “tremendous growth.” Compaq’s Greve says the increased Arabic support of Microsoft’s Terminal Services is also driving local demand.

“We are seeing installations all over the Middle East starting from around 50 units up to the thousands. Our sales figures probably run at around 1,000 units per month. Q1 has been strong and Q2 looks promising,” says Greve.

Haider Salloum, server marketing manager at Microsoft Gulf, is even more positive, claiming that the number of seats sold for Terminal Services is increasing by about 53% year-on-year.

“This is because Terminal Services is an integral component of Windows 2000. A lot of the customers that have deployed Windows 2000 are starting to take advantage of something that is already built into the OS,” he says.

Another reason for the growing thin client market is a more mature view of how and where it should be deployed. Rather than migrating an entire organisation to a thin client computing model, companies have learnt to mix environments — something that also helps gain thin client acceptance among users.

Al Tayer Group separates its heavy-duty knowledge workers with multimedia requirements from its data entry users. DWTC does something similar as this gives heavy users the freedom of using a PC, without slowing the network for those on thin clients.

“You always have your heavy-duty knowledge workers, guys that are running
multimedia apps. You want to keep those heavy users away from the thin client,” says Powell.

Moving forward, the increasing demand for mobile access to core business applications and the convergence of technologies is also going to drive thin client adoption. Roger Baskerville, director of embedded systems at Citrix, explains that by using thin client computing for mobile access, organisations can avoid the problems created by trying to get bandwidth hungry applications over constrained networks.

“Corporates are trying to get information out to places where they have never done before and thin client computing allows them to do this,” he says. “In addition, you don’t get dumbed-down versions. You get fully functional Outlook, SAP, customer relationship management (CRM) system and access to all your files — that is virtual access,” he adds.

Such remote connectivity will be improved by the portal access now available through Citrix’s NFuse technology. Designed to provide employees with secure, role-based, personalised access to applications across the Internet, the idea is to remove the customisation and costs associated with typical enterprise portal servers.
DWTC is already investigating the possibilities that NFuse can deliver. Faraidooni explains that he expects to implement the solution over the summer. Once live, users will be able to access a web page, enter their password and work directly on the server.

Testing of the NFuse solution is already underway at DULSCO. Muqeeth explains that the inspiration for deploying the portal solution was its JD Edwards rollout, as it wanted to give as many users as possible access to the application. Once that is working, the company will add its other applications, such as its bespoke payroll app to the portal, thus giving users access everything they need on a day-to-day basis.||**||

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