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Thin is in

Thin is in

Rowan Duncan and Alex Cruden are more than happy with their choice of thin client computer environments

Rowan Duncan (left) and Alex Cruden (below) are CIOs at different Auckland-based companies but they have more in common than they might realise. Both men have no doubts about their decision to go with thin clients.

Their story is a familiar one: get the basics, the infrastructure, right and you free yourself to do the job you were really hired for. Now they can plan and direct their companies’ IT directions rather than finding themselves preoccupied with fixing what’s already in place.

Duncan is IT manager at Canon New Zealand, while Cruden is computer manager at Sanford’s fancy new headquarters and public outlet in a quiet street near the waterfront and Auckland’s fuel tank farm.

In Cruden’s case the decision to go with Wyse Winterm thin clients was prompted in large part by an expanding user base after the installation of Microsoft’s Navision Attain ERP system, live since June last year. With the new system came an unexpected requirement to meet the needs of a rapidly expanding user base -- from 100 to 150 within a short period -- as the business continued to grow. Cruden needed up to 100Winterms to be shared among the users, a number of them taking over computers on shift work.As far as he was concerned, thin clients were the only way to go. “I am a big fan of Winterms,” he says. “They have been of huge benefit to us – not just the boxes but from a support perspective as well. They’ve got no hard drives or CD drives and very few moving parts. You don’t have to worry about viruses on them.”

Before the new hardware came into play, Sanford had been using PCs with a mixture of Windows 95 and 98 and was facing compatibility problems with servers running Windows 2003 and Active Directory. Setup and support was a tedious task, handled from Auckland by Cruden’s team of three IT specialists. It didn’t take him long to see the advantages of thin clients when MPA, Wyse’s New Zealand partner, approached with a suggestion that it set up a trial with eight Winterms.

“We needed equipment quickly,” says Cruden. “We wanted additional training facilities in Auckland and additional devices throughout the group. Another consideration was that thin clients could be installed quickly and cheaply. The expense of replacing Windows 95-98 computers was something we didn’t want to consider at the time. The Wyse Winterms cost 40%-50% less than the PCs and the setup time took less than 20% of the time it would have taken with PCs.”

Cost. That word comes up time and time again as Cruden sings the praises of thin clients. He ticks off the savings once again: first, the capital cost is significantly lower; second, the setup effort is significantly lower; third, the biggest benefit – ongoing maintenance and support is greatly reduced. “We have a small team here and we don’t have time to go chasing after PCs. The Winterms just don’t fall over.”

As for the setup and configuration – well, the Winterms go straight to the users, who taken them out of the box and plug them in. Startup is a breeze. All the users need to do is switch on their machines and once the terminals have acquired an IP address for the first time, that’s it. The configuration is over. The Winterm servers, incidentally, are running Citrix MetaFrame XP.

The old PCs – and there are still several in use, although they will be phased out over time – can take several minutes to start up.

From now on, says Cruden, Winterms will be a first option when a new device is required. “We wouldn’t consider setting up a PC unless there was an absolute need to do so.”

While talking about lowering of costs, it seems reasonable to ask why Sanford didn’t go for outsourcing of its ERP solution. “We looked at having the entire system hosted off-site,” says Cruden. The idea was financially attractive and there were pros and cons from a security point of view. But Sanford decided that the answer must be no. They weren’t comfortable with the idea of having it all offsite.

The core ERP system, from his perspective, is a fairly standard product and hasn’t been greatly modified. What they have done, though, is add modules developed in Scandinavia exclusively for the fishing industry. These had to be changed considerably to meet New Zealand’s unique conditions – regulations, GST and Sanford’s standard operating practices.

As could be expected, a good number of people involved in the fishing industry have little knowledge of computing. That can make the CIO’s job tougher – the concepts can be difficult to grasp – but once the message has got through everyone tends to fall in behind it. “That’s what’s surprisingly good about the industry,” says Cruden. “Once people are behind a technology they are into it boots and all. The senior management team here is particularly receptive to technology ideas. They are always keen to look at any technical aspects that could benefit the organisation. But we don’t use technology just for the sake of it. It has to benefit us.”

Cruden sees an opportunity to extend technology usage on the fishing boats. Data collection starts with processing on board the fishing vessels. Data centred around that process is sent to the vessel management team to provide an indication to marketing of what product is heading their way. Data sent to shore is captured in electronic form and imported into the ERP database. More information is provided via wireless technology once the boats tie up at the wharves. The system is quite complex and not yet as streamlined as Sanford would like to see it.

“It would be good if we had nice, cheap satellite communications,” he says. “Sure, we have satellite systems in use but they are not cost effective for exchanging large amounts of data. Prices have come down over the years but they are still relatively expensive compared with other land based methods of communications.”

As for the ERP system, Cruden feels there is still a lot more to be done in terms of data analysis. “The platform is stable. It is really just a question of how we will adapt to the ERP to help us improve things. It is not a finished article yet. It is evolving and changing all the time…”

One area that could see further change, though, is the use of devices out in the field. Cruden sees a particular opportunity for the use of mobile computers at Sanford’s mussel and oyster farms. At the moment the product is regularly assessed to see if it is ready for harvesting, whether the oysters or mussels are the right size for particular markets. Most of the information is recorded on paper but Cruden would like to be able to capture it electronically and transmit it to the ERP system. “PDAs are a possibility. We haven’t really investigated the hardware side of it. Meanwhile the database in the ERP system is being developed to accommodate the data.” Whatever devices are being used, they wouldn’t require huge bandwidth to transmit the information. The use of wireless transmission would mean that Sanford could get timely and accurate information before the product was harvested. That would be useful.

Cruden is unperturbed about demand on the network as the new functions come on line. At the moment the speed is pretty good, he says. “We are actually running quite narrow pipes to the different locations, some of them with just a handful of users. Typically the connections are running at 128Kbit/s or 256Kbit/s. Having Citrix means you can get away with using about 20-23Kbit/s per client. We might have to consider upgrading the connections as the branches grow.”

It is likely to be a while before that happens. Recent analysis shows that even the larger sites aren’t peaking at 50% of bandwidth yet.

Over at Canon, CIO Rowan Duncan says Canon’s move to thin clients was partly prompted by issues of control and support. “We had something like 20 servers spread around the country and we had to somehow look after them from Auckland. We didn’t have technical people on-site around the country. Some of the offices had as few as five people – Rotorua, for example – and our Christchurch office had 40 people.”

An audit revealed that software versions were covering the entire spectrum – Microsoft NT4, Microsoft Exchange 5.5 and Microsoft Office 95. Printers were another challenge. They had been easy to acquire because Canon is a company that makes printers.

Duncan figures his team counted 89 of them throughout the organisation. Then there were the servers – those at the various locations plus two remote Exchange Servers. “When we added it all up we figured we were probably spending around 60% of our time and budget just maintaining what we had. It was quite a drain on resources.”

More than anything, though, Duncan was hampered by control problems. Without support on site, people were tinkering with their own PCs. Some technical people throughout the organisation liked to add their own software and do their own thing, causing problems in other areas. Duncan was determined to change all that but he wasn’t going to be able to achieve much simply by removing drives. After all, anyone could plug a tiny thumb drive – a flash card – into any USB port. Duncan describes them as everyone’s worst nightmare. “How do you scan them for viruses?”

No, there was only one clear answer for such a decentralised business. That was to install foolproof thin client devices. “Now we have 80% of the organisation running on thin clients, says Duncan. “We control what applications the users run and how they run them.”

Today, Canon has about a dozen servers that meet all its requirements. They have moved on from NT4 to Windows 2003 server platforms. It hasn’t all been easy – Duncan describes Active Directory as being a bit of a mission in terms of the understanding it required. “We spent so much time trying to work that out… We had a lot of options and a lot of choices.”

Duncan used a number of small partners to help set things up. “We tend not to use the big boys such as Computerland,” he says. “We have a number of small businesses that we have partnered with over the years and we quite like dealing with their people. They’re two- or three-man companies. An Exchange 2003 person came from one company and another person helped to set up the servers.”

While the standard Microsoft applications – Office and Outlook – were upgraded for consistency, the seven-year-old MasterPack ERP system, based on the UniVerse database, remained in place on its Unix platform. The GoldMine CRM platform also remained in place. Both packages are accessible via the thin clients – a fact that Microsoft likes to crow about because it illustrates how far the organisation has come in opening itself up to other operating environments. Microsoft has a point – apparently the old systems slotted easily into the new environment.

Microsoft’s Windows 2003 Terminal Server is used to drive the thin clients. Duncan had looked at the Citrix solution and decided it was too expensive. It was a hard choice, though, because he felt there were a few things missing in the administration side of Terminal Server. Some of the printer interfaces were missing as well. “It gets a bit hard at times but we were able to resolve the administration aspect by using groups. We use groups for everything. Now, when a new person starts somewhere in the organisation, we just add them to different groups. There are groups for printers and groups for applications… We just go tick, tick, tick and that places them into the appropriate usage groups. It used to take us about six hours to set up a new person. That involved network logins, ERP logins, CRM logins, passwords, that sort of thing. We can do it in 30 minutes now.”

The number of printers in play has been cut to 60. Configuring them was a big task but now they are being utilised better and everyone is sharing them. Perhaps the hardest part in setting them up was having to deal with the politics of ownership. Some people claimed various printers as their own and were unwilling to give them up without a fuss. Now, says Duncan, they realise the benefits.

The final result has been worth it. Duncan is reluctant to use the word control, but that is what has happened. Order has emerged from chaos and Duncan has done it without the use of management tools such as ITIL or any other big project philosophy. “What we did have was management commitment, and I guess that was the big thing for us. We had to convince management that thin clients were the way to go. Once they accepted the concepts and realised the proposals would be good for us everybody pushed it through.

One major building block in Duncan’s planning for a better computing environment is his team’s use of SQL, used to extract data in and out of the ERP and CRM systems. “Everything resides in SQL for us,” he says. “All our information systems are inside SQL. Around that we have the Windows platforms and the different operating systems.”

It’s all part of the infrastructure – one that allows the business to move forward with relative ease. This quarter, Duncan is looking at doing some projects with remote devices, synchronising data backwards and forwards. The primary tool for that will be Microsoft’s BizTalk server. Duncan says he has been talking to his people about it and believes setting it up will be a piece of cake.

“We rolled out Vodafone smartphones throughout the organisation at the beginning of the year, and we wouldn’t have been able to do that without the infrastructure in place. The 45 staff with smartphones can now get their email on the go. We are doing similar things with Telecom’s Harrier smartphones and T3G. These phones will go out to the technical people. They’ll be able to surf the Net and get email.” Once again, it’s all been made easy by having a stable, updated infrastructure.

Duncan sees the use of mobile devices as an enabling tool. Under the old regime CRM staff key in problem messages from customers. If a customer has, say, a copier problem the support staff will telephone a technician and tell him where to go. When the technician finishes the job he phones back to confirm that the issue has been resolved and asks where to go next. “What we are trying to do now is give ownership back to the technician,” says Duncan. “We want the technician to figure out for himself where to go next and to do things out more effectively. We can’t do that unless we have the right tools.”

The new system will take some of the complexity out of support operations, increase efficiency and will make staff more cost-effective. Under the new support structure Canon will have 40 callcentre staff scattered between Auckland and Christchurch. Software running from the Auckland base will be used to help decide which region a call will go to and who is best qualified to respond to it. “On top of all this we are accumulating data in the background – how many calls, how long they are, whether we are answering them quickly and effectively … We will know when we are getting most requests and can decide whether to bring more staff in. We can also decide whether to direct calls through Australia out of hours -- those sorts of things. Knowledge is everything, and we didn’t have that before.”

Duncan recalls that the latest initiatives were partly inspired by an assessment last year that showed some customers were not always able to get through to the organisation. “We thought, ‘Holy smoke, what is that customer doing as a result of this experience?’” The investment is in the region of half a million dollars. Duncan believes every penny spent will be worth it if it keeps customes away from competitors and perhaps even wins new customers from the competition. As he says, happy customers mean good business.

That’s the point of course: setting up the IT infrastructure so that the IT team can focus on making the business better. Duncan now has a business analyst whose job is to go around the organisation and talk to people to find out what they need. “He works for IT and all he does is find out the business processes and how we can improve on them, and so on…”

In the not too distant future lies another big task for Duncan: what to do with the aging ERP and CRM applications. PriceWaterhouseCoopers is currently performing an audit on them. That doesn’t mean the applications will necessarily be replaced soon but at least Duncan will have a better idea of where he wants to go next.

Such is the life of a busy CIO.

SIDEBAR

Happy days at Sanford

The critical issues:

1. A small IT team managing a growing user base.

2. Time constraints to administer.

3. Rising costs to manage.

Reasons:

1. The impact of a new ERP system on the existing infrastructure was under-estimated. The system allowed access from across all points of the supply chain process to final exporting, thereby increasing the PC user base.

2. Desktop support and upgrading was problematic and the tools utilised by the IT team were not considered fully effective.

3. Some existing desktops were outdated and did not operate compatibly with server applications.

4. Users had limited PC skills.

5. PCs positioned in a harsh environment.

Results:

1. Reduced IT costs. setup and operating costs of the Winterms are 40% lower than PCs. A 20% saving on the annual IT budget has been achieved.

2. Minimal downtime. Winterm setup and configuration time is 85% faster than a PC, from one hour 45 minutes to 15 minutes.

3. Faster access to information. Time-critical information can be accessed within seconds through the marked improvement in speed and performance using Winterms.

4. Simple of use. Minimal training is required for all users.

5. Support time cut by 50%. A thin client environment allows central management of the Citrix profile. This has halved the time to support and install new applications.

6. Lower threat to security. Winterms are less susceptible to virus and security threats.

7. Fit for any environment. Slim line and durable thin clients are suited for the factory floor to cool stores.

Biting the bullet

Canon New Zealand opted for a complete platform upgrade, taking advantage of the new Microsoft Windows Server System and Microsoft Office software.

Value to the business:

X The business operates with more accurate information and databases.

X Staff can connect more easily to centralized information while on the road, and have the option of working remotely.

X The latest technology offers staff smarter tools to work with and staff are experiencing improved customer service from the helpdesk.

X IT is now aligning its focus to the needs of the business, including exploring secure remote connectivity and more powerful communication and collaboration tools.

Value to IT:

X Centralisation has reduced cost and administration time.

X The IT team now has its finger on the pulse and is able to spend more time on strategic projects rather than constant firefighting.

The Microsoft platform:

X Microsoft Windows Server 2003.

X Microsoft Windows Server 2003 – Terminal Server

X Microsoft Exchange Server 2003

X Microsoft Office Professional Edition 2003

X Microsoft SQL Server 2003

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