The Spin on Thin : Thin Clients in Academic Libraries

On the final day of the 2006 LITA National Forum, Helene Gold, electronic services librarian at Eckerd College (St. Petersburg, Florida) described how thin clients are being integrated into the computing environment in the college’s new library. The 25 people who braved Forum-fatigue to attend were not disappointed by Helene’s engaging and accessible presentation.

When Eckerd College decided to build a new library, it also decided to house the campus ITS department in the new building. The ITS department in turn decided to use the opportunity to install thin clients in the new facility to showcase the technology. This had both positive and negative ramifications– while the ITS staff was committed to making the project work, “buy in” by the library staff came more slowly.

Thin clients

Thin clients are relatively simple and durable devices that have no storage or computing power of their own but which can be used to communicate with applications running on servers. While old PCs can be reused as thin clients (removing or deactivating the hard drives), Eckerd decided to use “Sun Ray” thin clients from Sun Microsystems in their new library.

The Eckerd ITS elected not to use a Citrix or Microsoft terminal server that could have presented students with the MS Windows user interface, but instead chose to use the Gnome user interface (most commonly used with Linux) that was supported by their Sun terminal servers. They made this choice both because of lower cost and the desire to simplify systems management requirements, as well as the desire to make the thin clients stand out from the MS Windows PCs used in the library.

The Survey

When she heard about the project, Helene conducted a SurveyMonkey survey to discover library experiences with thin clients, and found that although few respondents were using thin clients, most of those using them were satisfied.

Negative comments elicited by the survey included software incompatibility, lack of CD-ROM support, frequent freeze ups, network bandwidth too limited make thin clients feasible, and finally, students were unfamiliar with the devices and needed more support (as compared with PCs). Notably, all the respondents of the survey were using the MS Windows interface (via Citrix or Microsoft terminal servers).

Positive comments included the space-saving and compact natures of the devices, energy savings (thin clients use 1/6 of the electricity of of PCs), centralized upgrades and management, longevity (can last 7-10 years, compared to PC lifetimes of 3-5 years), security (students login securely to the network and server security is far better than that of Windows PCs), no virus or worm threats, and also that the devices have virtually no value to thieves– they only work in thin client environments. Finally, there are no games or student-initiated downloads, and no chat.

From the Trenches

In her last segment, Helene shared insights from their day to day experiences with the devices:

Printing has proven to be a problem. The system’s Sun printer server did not play well with the campus’ Novell iPrint system, and after much work, the ITS staff eventually removed it and went with CUPS (Common Unix Printing System) instead.

The devices do not have CD-ROM drives (or even support external ones), and students needed to use language CDs have to be directed to Windows PCs elsewhere in the building.

Although the Sun Rays can support USB storage devices, other types of USB devices usually do not work.

Students who needed to use MS Windows applications (such as MS Office) access them off the network from a Linux-based CrossOver server from CodeWeavers which runs them on a compatibility layer. Although CrossOver has been explicitly tweaked to run in Sun thin client installations, Office access is still the leading source of student complaints and some of the steps students must take while using it seemed cumbersome. Saving a document, for example, was a six-step process.

As noted, the library was faced with the double burden of supporting students on both a new hardware and software platform at the same time.

Software that is intensely computational is not a good fit for thin client computing, because all users are sharing the processor(s) on the server(s).

Thin clients are also very sensitive to network bandwidth problems, again because every task, every keystroke the users are doing is 100% dependent on the network.

There is a lack of control with thin clients. They are centrally controlled by the systems staff, and there is little tweaking possible from the user level.

On a positive note, Sun thin client environments offer Sun’s “SmartCard” technology. Students can be issued a card that they insert into a slot on the machine, log in over the network on any thin client, then pull out the card and take it to any other thin client and rejoin their session. A sessions can remain open all week, allowing students a lot of flexibility in their work arrangements. Drawbacks include the cost of the card ($4) and confusion from students because it is a separate card from the campus ID.

The Set Up

Eckerd used two Sun 2-way servers with 4 GB of RAM each, and a single processor Dell server (with 2 GB of RAM) runs CrossOver Server under Linux. They have 30 thin clients currently.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Helene noted that planning is crucial in making a project like this a success. Who will control and implement the project? What are the needs of the users? Software compatibility issues should be carefully examined. What cost savings are anticipated? What is the projected return on investment?

Finally, does the library or the ITS staff have people with Unix experience? And does the library have a good relationship with its ITS staff?

Both the Library staff and the Systems staff need to work together on a project like this, and the earlier they get get together in the process, the better.

In the discussion that followed, the open source K12LTSP project (http://www.k12ltsp.org/) was mentioned as a free way to experiment with thin client technology.