Thin Client Savings Using Old Computers - Maybe Not!

The Promise from the Vendor:

Using old computers as thin clients will save you money.


There are many cases where thin clients are a good solution. I worked with Special Ed Manager and the flexibility it offered in delivering the application was perfect. We could run the software on almost any machine anywhere by only installing a small footprint client for their browser. A great use. On the other hand, I have worked with software that required updates every couple of months, very similar to RSCCC's demands in the past, and the technology staff spent an inordinate amount of time updating machines all over the company. I wished it would have run as a Citrix application, we could have eliminated at least one employee and kept the users on task more often.

So I need to be clear, I believe in using thin clients - when appropriate and cost effective. However, in the case where the cost savings involve using old computers I have a few concerns.

The main premise, in this case, is that a thin client does not require as much power as a regular desktop computer. (Power - as in processor power, RAM, mhz/ghz, and so on.) Therefore, if we switch to thin clients, we can use our low powered, old computers instead of buying new ones. Since we are not purchasing new computers we are saving money. This is quite a bit different from the approach of purchasing new, low cost Celerons instead of new, feature filled Pentium Ds.

There are many assumptions here and the vendors involved always have a wonderful Return On Investment (ROI) for the schools or organizations. In this entry I will not discuss all the facts and/or illusions propagated, only the ones about using old computers as the thin clients.

First, are these computers in service now? If they are in service, why are we going to change that? Very few people like change, so if it is working why mess with it? If we are talking existing equipment, then the software and hardware is already paid for. What expense is involved in letting it keep on doing what it is doing? Usually there is no expense. Obviously we are not saving money by changing, if they are working.

Second, are these computers out of service now? If so, why? If they were taken out of service because they were broke and could not be fixed, then we can not use them as thin clients. If they were taken out of service and were not fixed because it would prove too expensive, that has not changed.

This would bring us to the conclusion that, usually, only computers taken out of service because they were too slow would qualify for thin client use. Except, what is that person using now? Did we take the computer away because it was too slow and then not replace it with another? That does not happen very often and would leave us with almost no computers to use as thin clients - other than the ones everyone is working on now.

Are we to draw the conclusion that when we switch to thin clients we are going to take our existing computers and convert them over? How many of your users will want to do that? Remember, this is only dealing with using old computers as thin clients.

Third, if we are planning on changing our existing computers over to thin clients so that we can upgrade the software and not the hardware, where does the electronic life come in? All electronics have a estimated life. You know, the average age after which they break regularly. What happens when we take the computers that are 4 and 5 years old and do not replace them? Does being a thin client prevent the power supply from breaking? Does being a thin client stop chip and circuit damage? Does all the built up static damage go away? Will the switches that are worn out be replaced?

When the vendor gives you this rosy ROI that uses your old equipment, how much is calculated for increased maintenance on the older machines? Will you need additional technicians to replace the worn out parts? Is your parts budget now increased? Do they calculate the lowered staff productivity from downtime on these older computers as compared to using new, low cost computers for thin clients? As compared to the existing machines? As compared to new desktops?

Fourth, how will this help your staff retention rates? It costs money to train new staff. Will your turn-over increase if your organization has old blurry monitors and noisy computers? When the school or company in the next town is offering their staff new laptops that they can take home what will you say? Are you going to build your thin client system so that they can access the software from at home? Are your old computers even laptops that they could take home?

What about the parents and students? Great, you have the latest software. The school down the road has the latest computers. Do you believe that students and parents will be satisfied with those computers when they reach 6 - 8 years old?

The computer teacher will have it the worst. When I have a lab with computers new to two years old I have maybe one computer down at a time. When I have a lab with three to four year old computers I can have two to three down at once. What happens when my computers are six to eight years old? The counselors regularly schedule computer lab classes at the maximum. You have sixteen computers, then they put at least sixteen students in there. How often your computers go down is critical, as is how many go down. Will having the latest software be worth it? Would the teacher rather have a new, low cost set of computers with Open Office? Would they rather have their old machines the way they are?

You know that textbooks are seldom as up to date as software could be. How many computer teachers wish to rewrite their lesson plans for the new software and still deal with old computers? If given a choice, would they change their local hard drive applications for network ones that fail when the network card on the motherboard dies? Are your motherboards the nice kind that allow you to turn off the broken network card and add a plug in card?

The teacher will view the old computers and the thin client solution as one and the same. When you remove the applications from their classrooms and leave the old machines it will be hard to convince them things are improved. How will they feel about relying on the network backbone to deliver all of their class materials to the computer? With desktops, even those old ones running on old computers, the applications are still there when the network goes down and the learning can continue.

If the computers are old now and the teacher was hoping for new ones, what pressure will they put on you any time a computer or the network goes down? Are you receiving funding for additional network technicians to handle that load? Remember to hire network technicians who can repair the old computers, because when they trace the problem to that old machine the staff will expect it to be fixed, quickly. The older the machine, the more repairs it will need!

There are many cases where thin clients are a good solution. Be very careful if the reason you can afford them is that you can use your old computers instead of buying new ones. It is possible that in your specific situation this is a good choice or the best you can do, but I would strongly caution against any assumptions that this is the case across the board.

Dirk D Dykstra
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