PCs slim down, save money in Collin County, Texas

Think back for a moment to 1995. A Pentium PC cost $2,500, and the Web was shiny and new. Life was good in Collin County, Texas, north of Dallas.

But county officials wondered if it could be better. The county had IBM Corp. green-screen terminals on its desktops, said Caren Skipworth, the county's director of information services. They were ancient, not at all network-enabled and lacked graphics capabilities.

Three years ago, county officials decided to think thin, as thin as the after photos on a Richard Simmons infomercial. The county installed 350 IBM NetVista thin-client PCs in its tax, sheriff's and judicial departments.

Each NetVista unit is are much cheaper than a full-blown PC, between $600 and $900, said Howie Hunger, director of thin clients for IBM personal systems group. The NetVistas also draw less than 20 watts of electricity each, Hunger said. The total cost of installation was about half of what it would cost to buy the staff Pentium PCs, Hunger said.

The thin clients run Microsoft Office and Internet applications over an IBM Netfinity Server running Linux, Skipworth said. The NetVista clients lack diskette drives, which is a good thing, Skipworth said. No diskettes means fewer viruses. 'Some customers refer to diskette drives as virus insertion devices,' Hunger said.

Back in its chubby, green-screen terminal days, the county had some trouble with data loss, Skipworth said. But that is not a problem now that the data resides on the server, and not the individual worker's PC. 'We can install software upgrades to the server, in one location, instead of 350 locations,' Skipworth said.

The staff had spent so long in a standalone world, they had trouble with the concept of a network, Skipworth said. She spent extra time working with the staff on security and the use of passwords, which the IS Department assigned to each user.

Although Skipworth hasn't calculated the exact amount of money the county has saved by using thin clients, she estimates that the labor savings are especially great. 'I've always been told you need one technical support person for every 35 PCs,' she said. 'Well, we have about 1,200 computers and peripherals in this county, total, and I have a team of seven technical support people for all that.'

The thin clients also saved the county money through shared peripherals. With the thin clients, more people could share the same printer, which in turn saved money on the toner and paper that went with the extra printers.

So does Collin County want to return to the mid-1990s, when its computers were pleasantly plump? No, Skipworth said. In the Texas county, thin is in. 'There are just so many pros in this e-world,' Skipworth said.

'Trudy Walsh

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