Transport Canada moves ahead with thin client desktop plans

LAS VEGAS — Transport Canada has started a project that could see almost all its desktops retired in favour of thin client computing in the next few years.

The federal department is under the gun to save money, like most government divisions, said Director General and CIO Chris Molinski, who spoke at a user session during Citrix Systems Inc.’s annual iForum conference which was held earlier this week.

For that reason, thin clients aren’t usually a difficult sale to the decision-makers in government (Molinski reports directly to the department’s CFO). The savings over desktops are readily apparent, as are application support costs, upgrade cycles and security issues like patching, which can all be handled virtually. The department operates 70 remote sites, added Richard Ruta, Transport Canada’s director of ITIM and infrastructure planning, and desktop management cycles could span three to six months.

The resistance comes from the user base, said Molinski, who are concerned that thin client computing means that they are losing resources. “People look for projects to fail,” he said, “especially if they’re changing the way they do things.”

For that reason, it’s important to have the buy-in of regional and business unit managers who can communicate changes to users and provide reassurance when needed. “It’s important that you deal with the culture issues,” said Molinski. There is added resistance from IT workers, he said, who are concerned that simplified computing may mean that their jobs are on the line, and overcoming that is also a matter of making sure everyone understands how the transition will be handled.

Enterprises are just now getting to grips with the ramifications of thin clients and virtualized applications, said Forrester Research analyst David Friedlander.

“Most companies don’t seem to have a virtualization strategy,” he said. “Most companies are focusing on two or three pieces, but not all of it. But that’s beginning to change.”

Transport Canada’s project, which is based on Citrix infrastructure tools, started in March and Molinski predicts the bulk of the work will be completed in about 18 months. A gradual rollout, with time for pilot projects and testing, is instructive, he said, and puts users more at ease with the changes as they come.

So far about 800 users have made the transition, as well as some of the department’s field inspectors who handle flight certification exams. About 4,000 users will move to thin clients in the short term.

Among the first applications to be delivered via thin client is Oracle Financials. Transport Canada has short-listed 15 applications that will be given the same treatment – the department has a total of about 450 applications, the majority of which will eventually be handled by thin clients.

Desktops will continue to be in use for some time, however. Molinski anticipates the department can extend the life of existing desktop machines by as many as seven years and users will continue to turn to them as their jobs require. Power users like application developers may be among the hold-outs who continue to use their desktops on a regular basis, added Ruta. But he has hope that they will make the transition to thin clients as well. Aviation giant Boeing, for example, demonstrated how graphics-heavy CAD software can be delivered over a thin client during the iForum keynote address on Monday. “If they can do it . . . so can we,” said Ruta.

Making the case for any type of IT transition can be an arduous task, said Molinski. His job has been made easier by the fact he’s built up trust during his 17-year career in transport – he’s been CIO for the last five – but the importance of employee and manager buy-in cannot be underestimated. “There’s no easy answers, you just have to be committed,” he said. “We’ve been successful because we’ve been able to align IT with business objectives.”

Other departments in the federal government are looking at thin clients as an option, he said. Transport Canada is the first department to undertake a major thin client project but the Department of National Defence and Social Development Canada are also taking it into consideration.

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