Case Study: Windows 2000 meets thin clients

The University of Bournemouth is one of the first examples of a major thin client deployment under Windows 2000

The University of Bournemouth is one of the first examples of a major thin client deployment under Windows 2000

Although better known as one of Britain's most popular seaside resorts, Bournemouth is also developing a reputation as the location for one of the most successful universities in the country. With 12,000 full time students studying across seven academic schools, Bournemouth University has grown rapidly over the last 10 years. Today, it is geared towards giving students real world experience to back up their studies. This focus has enabled the University to deliver one of the highest graduate employment rates in the first six months following graduation.

With courses as diverse and unusual as History, Heritage and Conservation, Financial Services, Tax Law and Midwifery, it is vital to the smooth running of the University and the success of the students that the IT systems on campus operate to a high standard. But as well as being an innovator in education, the University's IT Services Department has prided itself on employing innovative technology wherever it can offer an advantage to its users.

"It is vitally important that we can meet the IT demands of our student population and the University staff, deliver reliability and performance, and do all this within strict budgets," explained Ken Bissell, technical director of Academic Services at Bournemouth University. "The demands placed on our IT infrastructure can vary depending on what time of the day or the week it is. If we have a large number of the students, all working on assignment deadlines or even dissertations at the same time, we must be able to have IT systems that are reliable and do not delay the completion of their work."

With almost 3,000 computers, ranging from PCs and Macs to powerful Unix systems, in use within the University, the challenge to both maintain current services and plan for the future is considerable.

"Compared to just a few years ago, students and staff alike expect a greater range of applications to be available to them, and the University's IT set-up has needed to adapt quickly to keep up," said Bissell. "Whereas previous generations of students were restricted by the technology of the time to little more than word processing, today they need everything from web access and email to a wide variety of applications suited to their course."

Three years ago these requirements led Bissell and his team to what was then an emerging desktop technology in the form of thin clients. Thin client technology appeared an attractive option not only because it offered performance equal to or even better than an equivalent PC-based solution, but the prospect of considerable savings in overheads such as support, maintenance and upgrading.

As a result, a new thin client system based around Insignia Ntrigue technology was developed and rolled out into a number of the "Open Access" areas in the University. Here students are free to work on the computers at times that are convenient to them. The early rollout was successful enough to convince the IT team that thin client technology could provide a long-term answer to the issues faced by the University. However, circumstances were to dictate that their thin client development route would soon have to change.

"When Insignia were bought out by one of their rivals, we saw an immediate reduction in the support which was on offer from the manufacturer and the commitment placed upon developing the software into the future," explained Bissell. "Combine this with the fact that we would have ongoing difficulty in scaling the Ntrigue system to support more than 60 users, it was clear to us that we needed to broaden our thin client perspective in order to reap the full benefits of the technology."

In searching for greater reliability, functionality and that important confidence in the longevity of the technology, Bissell and his colleague Grant Tiller were encouraged by the increased involvement of Microsoft with their Windows Terminal services based around Windows 2000 Advanced Server. "We jumped at the chance to get involved at an early stage here, because we remained very interested in the technology and excited by Microsoft's commitment giving us the reassurance we were looking for," explained Tiller who is the NT systems administrator at Bournemouth University. "We had considered going back to a PC-based network, but instead we evaluated a collection of thin client hardware and software from vendors including Microsoft, Citrix, Wyse Technology and Network Computing Devices (NCD)."

The installation at the University is based around six Compaq Proliant servers running Microsoft Windows 2000 Advanced Server with Terminal Server services. In addition to the purchase of an initial grouping of 60 NCD ThinSTAR 200 thin client desktop devices, the University also invested in NCD Load Balancing software. This piece of software adds extra functionality to Windows Terminal Server, allowing the resources of a collection of servers operating on the thin client network to be allocated and balanced according to need and for maximum efficiency. For instance, if one of the servers ceases to operate as part of the network, the Load Balancing software will automatically establish the most efficient way for the remaining servers to operate in order to maintain network performance and resources to clients. "The NCD Load Balancing software also swayed our decision in the purchase of the servers," explained Tiller. "The per client licensing arrangement meant that we could go for six lower powered servers instead of two higher spec ones. This means that with more servers, we can provide a better quality of service as hardware failure would be less of an issue, we have a more cost-effective route to future hardware upgrades and we are not affected by the costs associated with 'per server' licensing."

"We had an option to use Citrix MetaFrame as our software solution, but we found the cost prohibitive, as it was costed per server," explained Bissell. "The server configuration needed to support it was also an issue for us because we wanted a larger number of less powerful servers to give us resilience across our network."

With the rollout gathering pace across the University campus, the IT team have already been able to report a reduction in technical support costs, compared to their previous situation. Also in place is a student cyber café, which has proved extremely popular and runs using six NCD ThinSTAR thin clients.

For the future, the University has firm plans to expand its use of thin clients for the students in the "Open Access" areas and are working towards 100-125 units for this phase of development. "What we have found is that the students are actually using the thin clients more than any of the other devices because they offer excellent performance and they are attracted by the idea of using state-of-the-art technology," said Bissell.

An additional project is also being considered that will see thin clients rolled out to the University's administration staff - an ongoing commitment to the benefits that thin client technology can bring.

Compiled by Will Garside

From David Tutin, Associate Director, Berkeley PR International

This was last published in January 2000

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