When Thin Is In

The balance sheet wasn’t adding up for the PCs in Scotiabank’s branches. With about 20,000 users in nearly 1,000 locations across the country, upgrades and maintenance were an endless headache. Rolling out new applications to so many PCs could take months. And the bank faced huge bills to upgrade hardware to keep pace with needs.Aging PCs, often running too many applications at once, were crashing far too often. That directly affected sales and customer service, when for example, employees had to Control-Alt-Delete their PCs forcing a client to sit for 10 minutes while the PC rebooted.
Alan Hosey, senior vice-president of domestic banking operations, says the impact of such problems on customer service and satisfaction was a major concern. “It’s well acknowledged that we’re number one in Canada for the last four years in customer service,” Hosey says. Scotiabank wanted to maintain that reputation and keep building on it. And the bank faced a pressing need to make things better for branch staff frustrated with the old systems.
So Scotiabank found a solution. The answer was to move most branch applications off the desktop PCs in the branches, centralizing them on about 120 application servers and using software from Citrix Systems Inc. to allow the branch PCs to operate as thin clients. Most of the old PCs remain in the branches, with upgraded screens, mice and keyboards. The need to replace the older processors has been eliminated at least for now, because most applications now run on the servers. A few applications still run locally, Hosey says. On a trial basis, the bank is replacing some PCs with thin-client devices without their own processing power, but Hosey expects there will continue to be at least two PCs in every branch.
Hosey estimates the savings from avoided hardware upgrades at $35 to $40 million over five years. But that’s only part of the story. Reliability has improved. While system crashes still happen occasionally, they are much rarer. The bank has calculated that its more reliable systems have led to a 14-per-cent improvement in branch productivity. And that translates into dollars. Hosey says saving one branch employee 30 minutes translates into “a five-figure sales opportunity.” He has raised branch sales quotas to reflect the time freed by more reliable systems.
The changes show in customer service too. One example, says Hosey, is the fact that forms are now printed faster, reducing the time customers wait to complete their business.
And updating software and rolling out new applications is dramatically simpler. Setting up a major new application on Scotiabank’s thousands of branch PCs could take three or four months in the past, Hosey says. Now a new application can be installed on all the central servers over a weekend and be available in every branch on Monday morning. The bank is now considering a move to similar technology in its executive offices.
Martin Reynolds, a vice-president at IT consulting firm Gartner Inc. of Stamford, Conn., says thin-client technology is not about cost savings so much as stability and control. Moving processing to central servers doesn’t always reduce costs, he says – in some cases it can cost more than a traditional PC model – but it does make managing the systems easier.
That’s particularly true in a large organization with many branches, such as a nationwide bank, he says. And because PCs in bank branches are used for relatively routine, predictable tasks, they are better suited to a thin-client model than, say, the desktops of professional power users who may need specific applications and want more control of their desktops.
Fitness World, Inc., a Vancouver-based chain of fitness clubs, has taken a slightly different thin-client tack. Until 2003, the company had dumb terminals in its 12 clubs for access to a central database, plus some Windows personal computers running other applications. Looking for a way to make the database accessible to more users and add a graphical user interface, Fitness World considered replacing the terminals with Windows machines, but chose instead to replace the terminals and some of the PCs with thin clients connected to Linux servers – one server in each branch and one at head office.
Ivan Beletsky, senior systems administrator, says there were three reasons for choosing Linux and thin clients – lower software licensing costs, manageability and security. Maintenance chores have to be done on 13 servers instead of about 200 desktops. “Applying a patch is usually less than a minute and it’s done for all users,” says Beletsky. A thin client that fails can be replaced in minutes.
The security benefits are partly to do with the lower incidence of viruses aimed at Linux as compared to Windows, Beletsky says, but the thin-client architecture also helps. “The fact that I can centrally manage user privileges and access to applications, and even what they can see on the desktop – that’s a benefit.”
Many large organizations are looking to thin clients to help make their IT infrastructure more manageable, says Michelle Warren, IT industry analyst at Evans Research Corp. in Toronto. “If an IT department or departments are managing each individual system, it’s a nightmare.” Heightened concern about security is another reason for taking this tack, says Warren. “My sense is a good part of this is being influenced heavily by the number of viruses out there.” Indeed, Hosey says Scotiabank’s centralized servers were unaffected by the recent Zotob worm outbreak.
Another potential benefit of thin-client architecture, Hosey notes, is simpler support for remote workers. A thin client or home PC connected to a Citrix server can give a teleworking employee access to the same applications as at the office, he says, but no sensitive bank data resides on the home machine. “If the thin client is stolen from their home, then it’s nothing more than a doorstop.” Among other things, this opens up the option of call-centre employees working from home.
Another way to eliminate IT infrastructure headaches is to outsource them. That’s what Weir Group PLC has done with its Toronto operations. Last year, Weir’s CIO, Richard Houle, moved 12 servers into the facilities of Fusepoint Managed Services Inc.
Houle says the deal will save about $200,000 over five years and net Weir nearly as much in avoided costs, while providing a solid disaster-recovery plan Weir lacked before and dramatically improving reliability. Before Weir closed its old data centre in Montreal, he says, “my infrastructure was crumbling.” Staff spent three quarters of their time fixing problems, systems weren’t monitored at night and on weekends, and “every week I had a server down.” Fusepoint has the staff to monitor systems 24 hours a day and the expertise to fix problems fast. Houle says uptime is 99.5 per cent.
In that way, Weir’s plan has brought similar results to Scotiabank’s — more reliable systems. And users appreciate it. Some of Scotiabank’s staff were hesitant about the thin-client approach at first, Hosey says, but they came to appreciate that their systems worked better and crashed less. Whatever reservations they have, Hosey says, “there’s certainly nothing like the noise and discontent that there was before.”

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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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