Benefits administration wants to embrace thin-client computing

Benefits administration wants to embrace thin-client computing

By Tony Lee Orr

GCN Staff

AUSTIN, Texas'To speed delivery of new applications to its 13,000 users, the Veterans Benefits Administration wants to head back to the future.

After spending years pushing computing power down to end users, VBA is considering a move to a thin-client network that systems officials believe would improve workers' access to systems and ease maintenance.

Terry Adkinson, a Largo, Fla., claims processor, demonstrated a prototype system this month at the Veterans Affairs Department's Information Technology Conference. In his job, he must access VA records to help determine whether veterans are qualified for medical benefits.

'I use electronic tools to gather evidence and make a decision,' Adkinson said. 'I can use the system to look through Veterans Health Administration records in St. Petersburg, Fla., and request hard copies of anything more than a year old.'

Using the prototype, he checked the hospital's summary for records created in the past 12 months, Adkinson said.

The move to a thin-client network would follow the increasing demand for access by caseworkers who do not work in regional offices, VBA officials said.

Technology staff time has been eaten up in the past serving these remote users. The switch would make it much easier to resolve users' problems, officials said. The migration to a thin-client network would also let VBA slow the rate at which it replaces desktop systems, which would save money.

Plus, moving to a thin-client system would let VBA make quick upgrades.

'Installing an upgrade on 13,000 [systems] takes some time,' said Raymond Orton, a Northlake, Ill., computer specialist working on the project. 'But if you decide to install software on this system, hello! The next morning, you log in, and it's all there for you.'

Although VBA officials have decided that moving the power behind the computing from the end-user system to the server makes sense, they haven't decided how much power to leave on each user's desk, Orton said. VBA still must choose a hardware platform for the end-user systems.

'There are a lot of decisions to be made,' he said.

VBA officials have presented a basic plan to VA senior managers. As yet, there is no decision on when VBA would begin the migration to thin clients for its end users.

Things are less iffy on the server side. VBA will run Microsoft Windows 2000 and Linux on IBM Netfinity 4000R servers with dual 600-MHz processors. VBA is also testing dual-, triple- and quad-processor Compaq Computer Corp. servers ranging from 650 MHz to 850 MHz. Currently, most of VBA's servers run Windows NT.

Move to access

Users would access the servers over 10Base-T Ethernet LANs, Orton said, but VBA might move to 100Base-T Ethernet.

VBA is weighing two deployment strategies for its thin-client network.

Under one plan, the agency would migrate current software to the host servers without major upgrades. The servers would be loaded with the legacy Windows 95 and the Microsoft Office suite and other applications that VBA employees use now.

The second possibility would be to upgrade software during the transition to the new system. VBA would decide where it would want to be in two years and configure the host servers with the new software, then convert users to the new OS and applications.

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