Ask the lab

No tech question is too big or too small for the GCN Lab

John Breeden II and Greg Crowe

The GCN Lab tests hundreds of products each year. The staff has scoured more help files, user manuals and FAQs than many users will read in a lifetime. And they're happy to answer almost any technical question that's thrown their way. A recent look at their in-box provided these samples:

Frank from the Postal Service in Harrisburg, Pa.

I have recently begun to learn about the USPS' Electronic Postmark for e-mail. What are the advantages and shortcomings of the product? Is this a product of the future or does it miss its mark?

John Breeden, GCN Lab director: The USPS EPM program is being offered by the Postal Service's private-sector partner AuthentiDate Inc. of Berkeley Heights, N.J. It is part of a larger, some would say worldwide, effort to make e-mail more functional and perhaps even reduce the prolific nature of spam. But specifically, the stated goal of EPM is to verify that an electronic document is coming from a trusted source and hasn't been tampered with.

Through the USPS Web site, you can download a free EPM extension for Microsoft Word that embeds itself in that program. (There's also a free software developer's kit for adding the EPM capability to other apps.) When you're finished with a Word document, you click on a little Postal Service icon in the corner of the screen.
This places your electronic signature on the document with a USPS seal. The software then creates hash data, sort of like a digital fingerprint of the document, which is stored at the USPS electronic repository for seven years.

When a person on the other end of an e-mail receives your document, they open it as normal. With one click, the receiving computer will check the stored data at the USPS repository and confirm or deny that the document is unchanged from its original form.

We've seen other programs do this before, so the technology behind it is solid. And the hash data that USPS stores is basically worthless to anyone who should happen to steal it.

Greg Crowe, GCN Lab analyst: Of course, while we think the technology is solid and there's good reason for EPM, the question is, Will people actually use it? The cost for the service is about 80 cents per e-mail sent, about double the price of a normal stamp, but you can buy EPMs in bulk and the price drops significantly from there.

To learn more about the program, visit the USPS EPM site at

Michael at the Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventative Medicine:
There's a renewed interest in thin-client technology. I would like to hear your views on the various offerings. What have your experiences been and what's the likelihood that users will accept the technology?

Breeden: Greg is becoming our expert on thin-client systems and recently finished a test of one. But in general, the biggest advantage is data security. You work at a health care center and I am sure you can appreciate the need to keep patient information confidential. This is an ideal place for a thin-client system, because data can be safely stored on a server.

Crowe: There are many different kinds of systems that fall under the general term 'thin-client' system, but they all involve having one's desktop PC replaced by a small box that often has only connections to your monitor, mouse, keyboard and network.

Often, thin clients are simply application portals, in which each client is running an instance of a particular application. This type of setup is prevalent in many service-related environments where everyone is running the same administration program that allows them to make changes to the database where, for example, financial, medical or important and often-accessed information is stored.

In other cases, a thin client is designed to give the appearance of full PC functionality. This can be done either with virtual space setup on one server, or with a blade server.

The good thing about a blade system is that clients are usually using a single dedicated blade PC all to themselves. Of course, you might have some of the same problems that occur with standard thick-client PCs, such as locally saved files not getting backed up, but these are largely minimized by their centralized location. Good management software will let you switch out a client's PC for a spare quickly and seamlessly.

The shared-server type of thin client is likely to be a bit less expensive per user, depending on how many clients you have sharing a single server. However, the more money you save this way, the more lag your clients will experience as they share the same resources.

Thin clients in general have begun to see an increase in popularity among some agencies. Like many innovations, the major obstacle to greater acceptance is the re-education of users and administrators.

No tech question is too big or too small for the GCN Lab. Ask them about what's on your mind at [email protected].

About the Authors

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

Greg Crowe is a former GCN staff writer who covered mobile technology.


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