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A screenshot from the IGEL Universal Management Suite (UMS) running on Windows Server 2008. This particular screenshot is of the settings of an individual client's details and settings.A screenshot from the IGEL Universal Management Suite (UMS) running on Windows Server 2008. This particular screenshot is of the settings of an individual profile which is applied to dozens of clients.An example of a DVI-I to DVD-D + VGA cable allowing a single thin client to support multiple monitors.
An example of the front side of an IGEL UD2 thin client.An example of the back side of an IGEL UD2 thin client.

Thin Client Deployment

This project was done while I was an RTA Coordinator with Student Affairs IT at the University of Montana, Missoula. Student Affairs IT (SAIT) is responsible for supporting the information technology needs of the University of Montana's Division of Student Affairs. As part of this responsibility and as a means to reduce the overhead involved with managing, maintaining, and supporting the hardware and software used by the division's more than five hundred employees, SAIT began to develop a remote computing infrastructure.

In the beginning all client workstations were full powered desktop computers running all applications from local individual installations. This slowly evolved into using application virtualization technology via Citrix XenApp (formerly Citrix WinFrame Server, Citrix MetaFrame Server and Citrix Presentation Server) to centralize the management and maintenance of common software applications used by the majority of the employees within the division. This allowed users to run common applications such as applications from the Microsoft Office suite or the university's ERP software as a virtualized application running on a server farm across campus. This change made the process of maintaining and supporting these applications much simpler for our staff. For example, in order to update the Microsoft Office suite with new patches it needed to be done only once on the application server and there was no need to visit and update each individual client workstation as they would automatically be working with the updated application the next time it was launched. This process of virtualizing and centrally hosting applications continued as more and more specialized applications were added to the Citrix servers. Soon it was possible for users to launch full virtualized hosted desktops running in the same manner and often this desktop, including the available published applications, was sufficient for a large majority of employees to complete their work without need of their local computer's resources.

While the support and maintenance side of the problem was minimized there were still a number of problem that could be addressed. First, when new computers and hardware were being purchases for new employees or to refresh an existing workstation it generally required much more money than was necessary. Full powered computers running moderns operating systems were purchased that were fully capable of running all of the applications locally but the new computer was often only used as a means to connect to a published desktop where all operations were handled by server hardware. Second, there was often a wide range of variety in hardware purchased and, should the newly purchased hardware fail in the future, there was no guarantee that a sufficiently similar machine would be immediately available as a replacement. Finally, the cost, in terms of energy efficiency, of running this many full powered desktop computers was not being justified by the way they were being used.

To simultaneously solve all of these problems and more we decided to begin to deploy centrally managed thin client terminals which would be used in the same way as the desktops described above by connecting to full published desktops. A coworker and I began this process by researching the different hardware and software combinations available from different thin client vendors to get an idea of the functionality of their hardware and management software. After selecting the top offering that were most relevant we acquired evaluation units from several of these vendors and setup and tested the devices and their associated management software. At this phase we found a clear winner in IGEL Technology who had very functional hardware, an incredibly powerful thin client and profile management platform, and a price point that was in line with our needs. After making the selection of the UD2 client model running a small Linux operating system we placed an order and began the process of setting up a Windows Server 2008 server which would be responsible for managing the configuration of every IGEL thin client we deployed.

The management server was very powerful in that a configuration profile could be created which defined certain settings such as the screen resolution, the connection settings to communicate with the Citrix servers, and visual customizations such as splash screens and default desktop background images. Once these profiles were created they could easily be applied to a specific client listed in the management console for that client to automatically apply all of the associated settings and configure itself - all without physically visiting the thin client. This, like many of the other efforts we took during this process, makes it far easier to make a single change that impacts all users instantly without the need to make individual changes to each client. Now, when deploying a thin client to an employee, it is possible to know with certainty that there are several identical clients available for immediate replacement should a hardware problem ever occur, which, as a result of the simplified nature of the hardware and the lack of spinning hard drives, is much less likely to happen in the first place. With the thin client taking a minimalist approach on hardware and using free open-source software a combination of savings emerge for each deployed thin client in the form of money saved on hardware, money saved on software licensing, and money saved on the energy efficiency of these devices.

Hundreds of these thin clients have replaced employee workstations, student computer labs, and even digital signage displays throughout the campus of the University of Montana, Missoula.