Get Remote Computer Access—And Save

Your old 486 computers will run like Pentium IIIs.
BY DAVID VINNEDGE

  

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
  • THERE’S A PROVEN technology—using terminal servers—that lets you run your office productively without the need to continually upgrade every workstation. It runs effectively even on old 486 computers or “dumb” terminals.
  • THE SETUP DOESN’T RELY on blue sky or untested technology. It applies 10-year-old technology, which is being used by more than 100,000 organizations, including most of the Fortune 100.
  • THE BENEFITS OF THIS TECHNOLOGY:
    • It eliminates desktop computer maintenance.
    • There is no need to regularly replace the staff’s desktop PCs.
    • Users can log on to the office computer system with practically any computer from anywhere in the world.
  • THE SYSTEM USES two powerful servers fulfilling the complete software and data-access needs of multiple users, whether they are in the office, in a satellite location, at home or at a client. The software application central to this setup is Citrix MetaFrame.
DAVID VINNEDGE is president of Cornerstone Computer Consulting, a Kissimmee, Florida, technology consulting firm. His e-mail address is dvinnedge@cornerstone-cc.com .

ost technology consultants recommend that businesses replace or upgrade their computers every three years or so. Such an investment, they maintain, produces a handsome return because, despite its cost, office productivity benefits. Although the advice is valid, there is another solution—detailed below—that’s less expensive to implement, produces comparable productivity gains and allows access to office data and applications from practically anywhere.

The model doesn’t rely on blue sky or untested technology. In fact, it applies 10-year-old technology, which is being used by more than 100,000 organizations, including most of the Fortune 100. The idea is to run all the office’s computers—no matter where they are, off a terminal server.

A high-speed office network can be set up with computers as old as 486 models or with “dumb” terminals. Yet the system speed is comparable to even fast Pentiums. While the initial cost of the network is higher than that of a conventional setup, over time, the return on investment is better and the cost of maintenance is lower.

THE BENEFITS

Before we disclose details about the solution, let’s check out its advantages. It will

  • Effectively eliminate desktop computer maintenance. A technical person doesn’t have to go from computer to computer to install new software or customize the setup for each desktop–even if the computer system covers more than one office or staffers work from remote locations.

  • Allow you to discontinue buying powerful desktops for the staff or upgrade current computers; instead you can dust off old 486 computers or replace all desktop PCs with “dumb” terminals at half the cost. In fact, a 486 PC will perform as well—if not better—as any current Pentium connected through a local area network (LAN).

  • Let you log on to your office computer system with practically any computer from anywhere in the world.

What makes these benefits possible is a system design that gets back to the mainframe concept—but without a mainframe. Since today’s computers are generally more powerful than yesterday’s mainframes, it is possible to designate two powerful computers to function as the servers—fulfilling the complete software and data-access needs of many users, whether they are in the office, a satellite office, at home or at a client’s. The servers do everything—store data and application software, perform data processing and, finally, deliver all this to users’ workstations fast and efficiently.

This design removes the burden of data processing from the PC and gives it to the more powerful terminal server. The only things the workstations do is display information on their screens and act as devices for inputting information and inquiries.

Thus, when a new software application—tax preparation or time and billing, for example—is added to the system, it’s loaded on the terminal server only—not on each workstation. Likewise, when an application is upgraded, it’s configured on the server only; there is no need to administer anything on the workstations.

THE SAVINGS

The time saved in maintaining each computer on the network is considerable. For example, in a conventional network setup, if you wanted to install a spreadsheet application on all 20 computers in an office, the tech-support person would need to spend from 30 to 60 minutes on each PC. Worse, the tech support person would likely have to do this only when the user was not working at the computer, which would probably turn a 20-hour job into a 40-plus-hour task. But with a terminal server setup, the complete office installation takes no more than an hour, because once the application is installed on the server, it’s immediately available to all users—no matter where they’re situated.

Hardware savings are equally dramatic. Rather than purchase new PCs costing up to $1,500 every two to three years, you can keep the current machines, and over time, as they wear out, replace them with terminals that cost less than half the price and never need upgrading. The initial setup for each new terminal takes less than 10 minutes from box to desktop.

THE CITRIX SOLUTION

It is best to have separate servers performing distinct functions for this network; an application file server and a terminal server. The application server stores applications and data, distributing the information over the network. Its operating system should be either Microsoft NT or Novell. The second server acts as the terminal server, running virtual workstations. Its operating system should be either Microsoft NT 4.0 Terminal Server or Windows 2000. The software application central to this setup is Citrix MetaFrame. While the system can run workstations without Citrix, omitting it would result in an overall decrease of system speed.

One Pentium III processor can service 15 concurrent users logged on at any given time. Calculating the number of concurrent users often requires some estimating. For example, with 20 users in the office, an argument could be made that only 15 would be logged on at any given time. However, keep in mind that during busy periods—tax season or the monthly closing—extra staff may be brought in or the entire staff could be working on their computers. For a 20-user office it would be wise to get a terminal server that contains at least two internal processors; thus it can handle as many as 30 concurrent users.

Terminal servers need ample random access memory (RAM). It’s best to provide at least 128 megabytes (Mb) of RAM for the operating system and 32 to 64 Mb for each workstation. Tip: Add a little extra RAM, up to 1 gigabyte; in this case, more is better.

Because all the data and programs are stored on the application server, the terminal server doesn’t require a large hard disk for storage. Two 9.1-gigabyte (Gb) SCSI drives are adequate. To avoid upgrading disk storage space in a year or two, start with two 18.2-Gb drives.

Important: For safety’s sake, the drives should be duplexed or mirrored—two techniques for recording redundant data; doing this provides continuous backup of data.

Here are typical prices for such a setup—assuming that the office already has one file server (the application server):

Number of concurrent users Cost of hardware Cost of operating system Initial labor cost and Citrix MetaFrame
10 or fewer $3,000–$6,000 $6,000–$8,000 $3,000–$6,000
11 to 30 $5,000–$10,000 $7,000–$10,000 $5,000–$8,000
Over 30 $9,000–$20,000+ $8,000–$14,000+ $6,000–$10,000

THE SETUP

Let’s see how this hardware and software arrangement works together. Think of the terminal server as a very powerful workstation. When users (they’re called clients in network jargon) log on from remote locations, they receive their personal desktop image on their screens. A client can be many things: a PC (or a dumb terminal without a hard disk) on a local area network (LAN); a PC at a remote location connected to the home office via some sort of communication circuit (point-to-point, dial-up or the Internet); a remote PC using an internet service provider (ISP) such as America Online or Mindspring; or even a PalmPilot. Regardless of how or with what device clients connect to the server, they receive their own personal desktop when they enter their user name and password.
With so much going on between the servers and the workstations, won’t the system slow to a crawl when more than a handful of users are online at the same time? In fact, such a system actually runs faster than a typical LAN. Here’s why: In a traditional LAN setup, calculations are done on each user’s computer, and those results are transmitted over the network, creating a great deal of traffic. Multiply that traffic by the number of workstations on the LAN and you can see why applications drag during peak work periods.

However, with the terminal server setup, all the processing is done on the central server; that data is not transmitted back and forth. The only transmissions between the server and the workstations are the individual screens for each workstation that display the processed data; and the only transmissions from the workstations to the server are keystrokes and mouse click commands; together, that two-way traffic is relatively light.

MAKING THE CONNECTION

How do telecommuters connect to the terminal server? Two options are available: a direct telephone dial-up connection to the server (client modem to server modem) or via the Internet.

The main advantage of a dial-up connection is security—the user needs to know the phone number plus a valid user name and password. A direct dial-up connection usually is best if the remote user is within a local calling area and there are relatively few concurrent remote users, say three or fewer. Any more than that and the monthly charges for multiple dedicated phone lines become prohibitive.

But there are downsides to that approach: When a user connects modem to modem, the two modems negotiate a mutually agreeable data-transmission speed, which typically is less than optimum speed because of phone line conditions (line noise) or because the two modems may be different brands and speak slightly different “languages.” As a result, performance when working remotely is usually lower than speed achieved in the office.

CASE STUDY
How One Firm Got Connected

Clark, Schaefer, Hackett & Co., a regional CPA firm based in Cincinnati, had a problem. With more than 200 employees and five office locations in southwestern Ohio, it needed a way for staff members to share files no matter where they were—at a client’s, home or one of the firm’s five office locations. The firm’s managers realized that it was growing increasingly uneconomical to make professionals travel just to access computer files.

To Sharon Ballard, the firm’s technology director, the problem was easily solved: Use its existing wide area network (WAN) and install a Citrix MetaFrame server connection so all the firm’s computer data could be accessible from any location.

She decided to move to the Citrix option in steps. The first was to connect two locations, Dayton and Middletown, which had many mutual clients. The installation went smoothly and the connection performed at LAN-like speed. The next step was remote user access for the Cincinnati location. Since a cable modem connection was already in place, a virtual private network and firewall were installed to give remote users a central point of access to the the software and data. This appeared to work during the day, but after 5 p.m. the system began to slow down and screen images took forever to appear on remote computers. She double-checked all the connections and tested the software—nothing was wrong there.

The culprit, it turned out, was the cable modem connection. During the day, relatively little electronic traffic moved across the cable and the Internet speed was acceptable. But in the evening, when bandwidth was being shared by residential Internet traffic, the connection slowed to a crawl: the upload speed was much lower than the download speed. The cure: Ballard replaced the cable with a dial-up and fractional T1 line—a high-speed dedicated telephone connection. Now the system works fine—day or night.

Why turn to the Citrix system? “The advantage,” explains Ballard, “is that it’s economical. It needs less bandwidth than a conventional point-to-point connection. And the Citrix Metaframe was the only solution supported by our firm’s software vendors. In addition, it’s more secure, and that’s important to us.”

Before installing the Citrix system, the firm compared the cost of installing and operating a conventional server system, and while the initial cost of the Citrix option was higher, its return on investment was both faster and better. As it turned out, she adds, the Dayton-Middletown connection paid off almost immediately. Typically, she added, the firm’s other Citrix-based remote communication expansions probably will take two or three years to pay off.

Within the next year, the entire firm will be connected with the Citrix system. “But in years to come, when access to Web–based products becomes more prevalent,” Ballard adds, “we’ll have to reassess our communication setup. In the meantime, this works fine for us.”

The Internet is a better option because it can handle virtually unlimited links without regard to the number of phone lines. As long as the ISP is within the client’s local calling area, toll charges aren’t a problem. If the ISP has multiple local calling areas, then users are able to log into the home office without incurring any toll charges. With this setup, the main office should be connected to the Internet with dedicated Internet access—a T-1 line, a fractional T-1 line, frame relay, cable modem, DSL, ISDN or satellite. Such a connection is limited only by the number of licenses on the terminal server. Speed is comparable to that achieved in the office and the connection is secure.

Important: To operate an Internet connection, reserve at least two static Internet Protocol (IP) addresses, one for the Internet connection and one for the terminal server.

Caution: Installing a terminal server configuration is not a do-it-yourself job. The real trick is to get all the different applications to work properly together. Turn to a certified consultant with terminal server experience. It will save you both money and headaches in the long run.

DOWNSIDES

Surely, you may ask, are there downsides to such a setup? There are at least two. A terminal server configuration cannot run all DOS applications; your consultant can identify them before you proceed with the installation.

While the initial costs—hardware, software and labor—may deter some organizations from installing such a configuration, those who have done it experience a handsome return on investment based on reduced desktop maintenance, lower PC or workstation costs and simplified network management. In addition, of course, there’s the benefit of access to information virtually anyplace at anytime.

Whether you have a small or large office, satellite locations, telecommuters or staff who work in client offices, this system can address those needs quite well.

An Invitation
If you have a special how-to technology topic you would like the JofA to consider for inclusion in this series, or an application shortcut you devised and would like to share with other professionals, contact Senior Editor Stanley Zarowin. His e-mail address is zarowin@mindspring.com .

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