Server-based computing reduces hassle of network administration

London Health Sciences Centre had two problems. One of Canada’s largest teaching hospitals, serving more than 1.2 million patients in and around London, Ont., it was having trouble keeping up with the cost of upgrading its 3,300 PCs. At the same time, software installations and updates across the

hospital’s two major campuses and several other locations were a major chore.

“”We found ourselves with an aging fleet and no budget to replace the worst part of it,”” says Peter Gilbert, co-ordinator of technology solutions at LHSC. Gilbert says the hospital’s PCs include everything from 166 MHz original Pentium processors up to the latest desktops.


The older PCs could no longer keep up with Cerner, a patient-care application that runs on about 1,700 of LHSC’s desktops and amounts to nearly a gigabyte of code, Gilbert says.

Meanwhile the IT department was having difficulty supporting users, because there were different versions of applications on different machines. Rolling out upgrades to the large and distributed user base took too much time, so LHSC wanted a way to ensure everyone was using the same software. The answer was to put most of the software on a server farm and use the PCs essentially as thin clients. Thus the older PCs’ limited power isn’t a problem, Gilbert says, and applications need only be upgraded on about 100 centrally located servers, not on more than 3,000 desktops.

LHSC began a trial of Citrix Systems Inc.’s MetaFrame Presentation Server early in 2001, and later that year chose Charon Systems Inc., a Toronto-based systems integrator, to help with the installation.

MetaFrame lets the application run on the server and transmits to the client only what is displayed on the screen — so almost any PC can serve as a client. “”The device has to work properly and everything, but it does not have to be the fastest machine going,”” says David Wright, president of Citrix Systems Canada in Mississauga, Ont. “”It simply has to run Internet Explorer at acceptable speed.””

Originally, Gilbert says, the plan was to put desktop productivity applications such as the Microsoft Office suite and WordPerfect on MetaFrame first. It quickly became apparent that there was more demand for Cerner, so the priorities were reversed. Cerner was available through MetaFrame within about three months, Gilbert says, and other applications a few months later.

Over all, the project took about a year from placement of the order to completion, says David Fung, president of Charon Systems. The project cost about $1.5 million — about half what Gilbert says it would have cost to replace the 1,700 PCs that needed upgrading to run the latest version of Cerner.

Gilbert says MetaFrame has greatly improved performance on older PCs, though those with the newest desktop hardware pay a bit of a penalty. New PCs installed today actually have faster processors than the servers, he says, and running applications over the network introduces a small delay. But Gilbert tells users the system is for the benefit of the whole organization.

MetaFrame has been a boon for LHSC doctors who prefer Apple Computer Inc. Macintoshes to Windows systems. Cerner does not run on Macs, but MetaFrame can allow a Mac access to Cerner running on a Windows server, so Mac enthusiasts no longer need two machines.


Software upgrades are much simpler now. “”You don’t need to visit every desktop,”” Fung explains. “”Once you visit the server, since the application is running from the server, the client will get the latest upgrade instantaneously.””

Gilbert says running applications centrally has not increased the load on the network — in fact he says the efficient MetaFrame protocol has reduced network traffic. MetaFrame also improves performance for dial-up users, such as employees working from home. Even a 28.8-kilobit-per-second dial-up connection gives good response time, says Gilbert.

Gilbert says there are minor hassles, particularly the fact that MetaFrame “”largely ignores”” Universal Serial Bus (USB) ports on client machines. LHSC has developed a workaround so employees can synchronize e-mail between their desktops and handheld computers.

Wright says the health-care sector is a major market for his company, as are the financial sector, government and others with large numbers of PCs spread across multiple locations.

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Grant Buckler
Grant Buckler
Freelance journalist specializing in information technology, telecommunications, energy & clean tech. Theatre-lover & trainee hobby farmer.

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