Shawn McCarthy | Thin-client laptops on tap?

Internaut'commentary:

Internaut columnist
Shawn P. McCarthy

GCN

A wide range of management issues and compliance requirements will affect how federal information technology officials manage PCs during the next year. Dealing with each issue separately may be tempting, but it's probably not cost-effective. As the items below appear on their radar, government IT managers need to look seriously at whether broad client machine replacement might be more cost-effective than simply tackling these concerns one at a time.

If so, what kind of client should that be? Consider what's coming.

The Federal Desktop Core Configuration Initiative. With heavy pressure on agencies to bring all Windows XP and Vista computers into compliance with Office of Management and Budget Memorandum M-07-11, managers face configuration work at a minimum and substantial machine upgrades in some cases. Meanwhile, there are lingering questions about security vulnerabilities in older machines that cannot be brought into FDCC compliance.

Retire them? Ignore the issue and accept the risks?

The looming end of Microsoft's support for Windows XP. Circle the date April 14, 2009, on your calendars.

That's when Windows XP leaves regular product support and enters a five-year extended- support phase. In the extended phase, Microsoft is not obligated to issue broad updates to the product. What are the consequences? If FDCC is updated, will XP be able to comply with new requirements? And, outside of FDCC, what if major security vulnerabilities are discovered? Can Microsoft's arm be twisted if the government needs immediate XP upgrades, or will Vista become the only option?

A growing preference for laptop PCs at many levels. Sometime this year, according to a Government Insights research study, the government will spend more money on laptops than on desktop PCs.

The drivers behind this trend are fairly obvious: Prices are low enough that most employees can choose laptops if they want, and there's more pressure than ever to support workers in the field and extend wireless connectivity to workers outside the office.

And the price of cell-phone broadband cards for laptops is dropping dramatically along with the per-minute price of connectivity. Some plans offer unlimited access.

Agencies face pressure to provide business continuity in times of emergency. This ranges from allowing workers to connect to systems from home or elsewhere ' laptops again ' to settling on standard machine and disk images to reduce the range of problems help desks must address.

Although all these issues hint that broad PC replacement could be looming within the next year, there is a viable alternative.

I've noted growing interest in thin-client systems as a potential cost-cutting strategy for system management.

Think about it: A thin client that is also a laptop easily addresses many of the issues raised above.

The transition to a thin-client system is not an easy one. But as agencies work to consolidate their data centers, thin-client support can be part of the broader system of upgrades. Is your agency considering this approach? Merging thin-client support with overall system consolidation makes both the data center and client-side upgrades more palatable. It also could give managers a clean slate as they face their multiple client-side challenges.

Thin-client laptops also reduce concerns over privacy and data from lost or damaged laptops. That's because the data resides on the server, not the client machine. And with work residing on a server, it can be immediately accessed from other client machines, making a lost computer less of an issue. Furthermore, thin-client laptops simplify secure communications because most of the computing is done on the server side.

To address all these issues, start with a full audit of your PC inventory and an assessment of what will be needed to meet the coming challenges.

The next step is a detailed return- on-investment analysis to determine whether upgrades, new PCs, migration to laptops or even thin-client laptops are best for your organization. Yes, it takes a lot of assessment and calculation, but it's worth doing if you want to keep your organization properly positioned for the PC challenges ahead.

McCarthy (smccarthy@ idc.com) is a senior analyst and program manager at IDC Government Insights and a regular columnist at GCN.com (GCN.com/1012).

About the Author

Shawn McCarthy, a former writer for GCN, is senior analyst and program manager for government IT opportunities at IDC.

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