Talk about pressure—and not just in tax season. Keeping office computer systems up and running in small and medium CPA firms is an enormous and unending responsibility. Without reliable computing and communication capabilities, your staff, your clients and your business are dead in the water.
To mitigate the risk of downtime for individual employee workstations, consider a configuration that simplifies hardware and software maintenance and administration, and improves disaster recovery. This article introduces such a setup, which also can lower costs, boost security and even shrink your organization’s carbon footprint.
Almost all firms use PCs as their standard workstations, with each computer’s hard drive containing most if not all software its owner uses. In that configuration, users often store on networked file servers all the data they share with their co-workers.
But there’s another network configuration worth considering—one that employs application servers, which provide access to the software, such as Microsoft Office and key tax and accounting programs, your entire staff uses.
This setup is neither new nor appropriate for every business environment, but it may work for your firm. Here’s why: While traditional networked file servers hold all shared data, application servers store all shared programs. So, for example, instead of every PC having a copy of QuickBooks, the software resides only on the application server, where each user can access it from his or her workstation.
For CPA firms that can’t afford downtime on even one workstation, application servers work well for two reasons. First, all software maintenance is easier because it’s done on only one machine—the server. Second, because the server performs all storage and computing, workstations are uncomplicated, inexpensive devices you can replace in minutes after a failure, quickly restoring employees to productivity. Moreover, simpler, smaller workstations consume less energy and take up less landfill space when discarded, endearing them to cost- and eco-conscious managers. Result: Application servers are a good fit for more organizations than ever before.
Below, we’ll discuss the new and improved benefits—and potential limitations—of this approach. Before you make any decisions, though, speak with your IT staff about how well an application server could satisfy your firm’s needs. See the sidebar “Consult With IT” below for issues to discuss.
Note that this article covers two kinds of tasks. Some are complex evaluations you should make only with your IT staff’s support. But others are less complicated aspects of setting up an application server and its workstations, which can be normal desktop PCs or diskless thin clients—desktop machines with no hard drive. Laptops, too, can serve as workstations, and if their data is stored on the server, the risk of data theft is eliminated. The following passages clearly indicate when you should proceed only with IT’s assistance.
LOTS TO LIKE
Consolidating your firm’s software programs on an application server provides several benefits.
Centralized control. Installing and managing your software will be simpler and quicker. Because QuickBooks, Lacerte and similar applications reside only on the application server, you don’t need to install or update them on individual workstations. Installing the application only on the server enables all employees to instantly use the same version of all shared programs. Note that this differs from a typical client/server application, in which part of the program is stored on the server and another is installed on the workstations. In an application server configuration, you install the program on the server, but not on the workstations.
Remember that you must comply with each application’s end user licensing agreement. Don’t assume that all these documents have the same provisions. Some applications are licensed per installation, others per concurrent user, and still others per end user—concurrent or not. So read them carefully, and buy as many licenses as needed to cover your staff’s use of the software.
Faster desktop configuration and disaster recovery. Because the firm’s key software and all prior years’ tax programs are on the application server, you can set up a new workstation in minutes. You’ll also save precious hours by no longer having to reinstall software on replacement PCs.
Less expensive workstations. No longer is it necessary to spend $1,500 on a fast, powerful system for each employee. Instead, to meet all your employees’ computing needs, you could opt to deploy $300 thin clients.
More environmentally friendly. The newest thin clients use less than half as much electricity as today’s PCs. So, replacing a desktop PC with a thin client can cut greenhouse gas emissions in half. Moreover, thin clients (with fewer moving parts and, therefore, fewer potential points of failure) outlast PCs by an average of three to four years. That helps reduce the quantity of discarded electrical equipment, which is rising nearly three times faster than that of other types of refuse.
Greater mobility. With an application server in place, an employee can use virtually any kind of workstation. An employee can connect to the server from the same office, a client location, home, an airport or coffee shop. Whether he or she uses a laptop, desktop PC, diskless thin client, a Mac or a Linux machine, he or she has access to everything available in the office.
Stronger laptop security. In a traditional configuration, laptops contain programs and confidential client data that can be compromised if the laptop is lost or stolen. But when configured to use an application server, laptops have no data to steal.
Less chance of hardware failure. With no moving parts, diskless thin clients are immune to hard-drive crashes.
Keep your dual monitors. Workstations connected to two screens can continue to use them after converting to an application server configuration. You also can span a remote desktop connection across both monitors by using the /span option in Remote Desktop version 6.0, which is included in Windows Server 2008.
System software likely included. Because Microsoft manufactures Terminal Server (TS) and Remote Desktop, the software required for this setup, they probably are already installed on your firm’s computers as part of the operating system.
Connecting From Other Devices
Even non-Windows devices can connect to a Windows application server. Mac users can download and install Remote Desktop Connection Client. It enables a Mac to run Windows-based applications on a Windows Terminal Server. If you are working in a Linux environment, install tsclient or rdesktop, which often are included in the Linux operating system. If you want to connect from a Blackberry, buy, download and install Mobile Admin 4.1. If your PDA uses Windows Mobile, a Remote Desktop client is included.
BEAR IN MIND
Along with many benefits, installing an application server may impose new system requirements or limitations. Consider the following carefully:
Greater reliance on the server. If you use an application server, your employees will depend greatly on its availability. But if they currently retrieve data from a file server, your firm is already exposed to potential server downtime and likely manages this contingency.
Application support questionable. Some developers do not support installations of their software on a Terminal Server. In fact, not every application will run in a Terminal Server environment. So have your IT staff check with developers before you buy an application server to host critical software.
Peripheral support uncertain. Terminal Server may not support all your scanners, printers and other peripheral devices. Find out from their manufacturers before you proceed.
Complicated licensing. Microsoft offers Terminal Server in what can be a bewildering variety of configurations and licensing arrangements. You’ll have to take extra care to understand them and choose the ones that best meet your firm’s needs.
Greater dependence on others. Installing a Terminal Server on your network, and perhaps also deploying it over the Internet to remote workers, increases your firm’s reliance on IT staff. So if you want your own accounting staff to manage and maintain your network, Terminal Server probably is unsuitable.
Start with a pilot program. There’s no need to move every employee to the application server configuration at once. Instead, try it with a few employees and one or two applications. Test it, make adjustments as necessary, and roll it out gradually.
Get good hardware. Don’t skimp. Get name brand, high-quality server hardware. For general hardware specifications and guidelines, see the sidebar “Consult With IT” below.
Maximize Internet access speed. If you have remote workers, their workstations’ performance will correspond to the speed of your firm’s Internet connection. High-speed cable, DSL and T1 connections all perform well. But if staff outside the office experience delays when communicating with the server, consider increasing your upload speed, which many ISPs will do for free or for a small charge.
If you already own a server and have few employees, none of whom requires remote access, you may be able to continue using only your existing server. But if you’ll be giving access to more than a few employees or connecting them from remote locations, your IT staff probably will recommend buying a dedicated application server. Because this is a complex strategic decision, see “Consult With IT” for hardware specifications and guidelines.
After speaking with your IT staff, you can set up the application server by following these steps:
1. Log on to your Microsoft Windows server, and make sure Terminal Server is installed and running (see Exhibit 1).
2. Install on the server the applications your employees need.
3. To connect to the server, each employee should open the Remote Desktop Client on his or her workstation, enter the server name or IP (Internet Protocol) address (see Exhibit 2), and click on Connect. To make it easier for your employees to do this, you could install a shortcut on their desktop so they can simply double-click it and complete this task.
You then will see a Windows desktop in your Remote Desktop window (see Exhibit 3). You can double-click on icons, use the Start menu, run all programs installed on the server, and interact with that server as if you were sitting next to it. The server will provide each concurrent user with his or her own desktop and the ability to run all the applications at the same time.
According to Microsoft, a TS-configured machine can host up to 520 concurrent users, depending on several factors, including its type of microprocessor and hard disk, available memory, network configuration, and the kinds of software it hosts.
Remember that depending on your setup, your employees may be able to use the Remote Desktop to connect to the server over the Internet, no matter where they are. Discuss this with your IT staff, which will likely decide to install a secure virtual private network connection for this purpose.
A more comprehensive installation checklist is available here.
Consult With IT
Application compatibility. Through research and testing, your IT staff will be able to determine whether each of the applications you need runs on a Terminal Server and whether its developer supports it in a TS environment. For example, Intuit technical support will provide assistance only on TS installations for the Enterprise version of QuickBooks. Generally, most applications function well on a TS.
Check peripheral compatibility. Not all hardware devices are supported in a TS environment. For example, an application running on the TS might not be able to send output to a printer attached to your desktop PC. Have your IT staff check that functionality, as well as your scanner’s ability to work with software running on the TS. If it doesn’t work, install the application on the workstation instead of on the server. Be aware that might not be possible with diskless thin clients, which generally cannot connect to scanners, printers and other peripherals.
Licensing. Microsoft has changed its Terminal Server licensing requirements over the past several versions. Talk with your IT staff to ensure that you are in compliance. For example, if you are connecting to a Windows 2000 TS from a workstation running Windows 2000 or XP, no extra licenses are required. Windows Server 2003 includes two free concurrent (that is, simultaneous) connections; if you need more, additional licensing is required. Also, be sure to install and configure the licenses properly. Improperly licensed TS will run properly during the trial period but stop working when the trial period expires. The retail list price for five additional TS licenses is $749.
Windows 2008 vs. Windows 2003. Microsoft made several enhancements to Terminal Server with the 2008 version, including RemoteApp, which enables you to launch individual applications remotely by double-clicking an icon on the client computer, rather than by delivering an entire desktop. Also included is TS Web Access, which provides a Web-based interface and improved printer support without installing drivers on the TS.
Hardware guidelines. The type of hardware you should buy depends on the number of your concurrent users, the types of applications they will use, the connection speed required, and your budget. With an application server, as well as any other server in your office, a redundant array of independent disks (RAID) is strongly recommended. This technology ensures that, even if a disk drive fails, the server will continue running and will allow adequate time to locate and install a replacement drive. Your memory needs will depend on the number of your concurrent users; plan on a minimum of 2GB.
For further discussion on hardware requirements, please refer to www.microsoft.com/windowsserver2003/techinfo/overview/tsscaling.mspx.
The sudden failure of even one or two employees’ PCs can seriously compromise a small or medium CPA firm’s ability to timely meet its clients’ needs.
Inexpensive, energy-efficient PC replacements—known as diskless thin clients—fail less often than PCs, and, when they do, can be loaded with all necessary software in minutes.
To minimize workstation downtime, some firms are installing application servers, which contain all software the entire firm uses. This configuration enables deployment of economical, low-maintenance employee workstations.
An application server is neither a new nor universally appropriate IT solution, but it may be the best option for many organizations that can’t afford any significant interruption in an employee’s productivity. Firms should carefully weigh the costs and benefits of this approach before adopting it.
Converting to an application server environment involves technological challenges of varying levels of complexity. While CPAs can resolve many of these issues independently, they should consult with their IT advisers on those this article identifies as esoteric.
Jeff Lenning, CPA, CITP, is the founder of Click Consulting, Seal Beach, Calif., which specializes in network support and application development. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
Do you face challenges like those discussed in this article? Then consider joining the AICPA’s IT Membership Section or becoming a Certified Information Technology Professional (CITP). To learn more, go to www.aicpa.org/infotech and www.aicpa.org/CITP.