Thin clients are in season at Park Service

All federal agencies make going green a priority these days, but preserving the environment has been part of the National Park Service’s mission for more than a century. Zion National Park in Utah recently took another step in that direction when it replaced some of its desktop PCs with thin clients, reducing power consumption by as much as 80 percent when in use and allowing them to be completely shut down for half the year. Using thin clients also cuts down on the information technology shop’s workload.

“The financial savings, the security and the energy efficiency all made thin clients a good fit,” said Zion IT specialist Mike Ball.

Ball manages the Windows-based network at Zion along with systems at nearby Cedar Breaks and Pipe Springs national monuments. Zion hosts a small data center; each of the monument sites has a single server.

“We have a large resource management staff that has significant databases of cultural data,” Ball said. “A lot of scientific research goes on here.”

Because the park’s seasonal staff only works half a year, the original idea was to shut down their PCs for the winter. That saved electricity but added to the administrative load. Virus definitions and applications needed to be kept up-to-date, and if they were out of the domain for a certain amount of time, they were automatically removed.

“The workload of powering them off and bringing them back on was too heavy,” Ball said. “So we keep them powered all year.”

Ball eventually chose Hewlett-Packard t5530 and t5730 thin clients. The back end is a Proliant ML 370 G5 server with 4G of RAM and a 15,000-rpm RAID 5 Serial Advanced Technology Attachment drive. The t5530s run Windows Embedded CE 6.0, while the t5730s run Windows XP Embedded SP2. They operate on the Windows RDP remote desktop protocol.

“The 5530 is an entry-level model, which offers a huge cost savings, while the 5730 is easier for those familiar with XP,” said Charles Phillips, the Interior Department’s account manager for vendor CDW.

Ball began with 20 thin clients, but that number has grown. They are set up in bays for use by the seasonal workers. Wherever users log on, the system pulls up their desktop configuration. PCs are also available if, for example, they want to burn a DVD.

Ball said the system has been well received. The park has a Gigabit Ethernet backbone, and he sized the server to accommodate the load. He likes the cost difference — about one-third to one-quarter the cost of a PC. He expects thin clients to last six to eight years, compared with four years for PCs.

Although thin clients are playing an expanding role, Ball doesn’t see them completely replacing PCs. Some users need more powerful machines for running geographic information system applications and others need laptop PCs for the road.

“Thin clients are one more tool in my belt,” he said. “It may not be the right tool for every job, but in certain places, it is a good fit.”

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