A Lab Guy's continuing struggle with Terminal Server and MetaFrame

In last month's Lab Guys, I described how I'd implemented a Microsoft Windows NT Server 4.0, Terminal Server Edition and Citrix MetaFrame environment to handle my day-to-day computing needs. The intent of this exercise was to eat my own cooking, meaning I'd live with the technology I've been reviewing and recommending. As I described last month, my first set of problems came to light when I tried to install applications on my server. This month, I'll look at some other difficulties I've encountered while using this technology daily.

My new computing environment is built around an unbranded server system running Terminal Server and MetaFrame. The server system is in my office, and when I'm in my office I use a monitor, keyboard, and mouse directly connected to the server. I'm not always in my office (as many of you who have tried to call me can attest to), so I also set up a Wyse Winterm 3000 terminal in my small office/home office (SOHO) lab. I installed both the Terminal Server client and the Citrix Independent Computing Architecture (ICA) client on my laptop so that I could, in theory, access my desktop applications from any location.

Stop the Presses
After I got over the pain of installing the software, I thought I was home free. I was wrong. The first serious operational problem I encountered came from an unexpected source—an HP LaserJet 6P printer. I had used this network-based printer before I moved to a Terminal Server and MetaFrame environment, so naturally I thought I'd continue to use it after the move.

I was able to successfully configure my server to access the printer, but I was in for a shock the first time I tried to print something. Instead of rewarding me with a printed document, the system gave me the blue screen of death. At first I didn't believe the printer was causing the problem; after all, I'd been printing to the same printer from an NT Server 4.0 system for several months. So I rebooted the system and tried to print again. No luck—I got another blue screen. Being persistent, I tried a third time and got a third blue screen.

At that point, I treated those poor souls around me to an extended rant about the stupidity of placing printer drivers at NT's kernel level. Somehow, ranting about the problem made me feel better. Then I tried searching the Microsoft, Citrix, and HP Web sites for a solution to this problem. My search only added fuel to my fire because I was unable to find any helpful technical support information for this technology on any of those sites. In the end, I simply found another printer, an HP LaserJet 5L in the Windows NT Magazine Lab, to print to.

On the Road
After I resolved my printing problem, I was quite happy with my new computing environment. I could work in my office or in my SOHO lab and access the same applications and the same set of files from either location. I didn't have to lug my laptop back and forth between the labs, and I didn't have to worry about synchronizing files between my laptop and my server. I must confess that I was really quite pleased with my decision to adopt Terminal Server and MetaFrame.

My happiness lasted until my first road trip, and I distinctly remember the moment my joy ended. I was sitting in a Red Carpet Club with my laptop in front of me. I dialed in to the office to access my email using the ICA client on my laptop (the actual mail client applications run on the office server). I had no problem accessing my Microsoft Exchange Server-based email using Microsoft Outlook 98, but everything got weird when I tried to use Eudora Pro to read my Post Office Protocol 3 (POP3)-based mail.

Specifically, when I advanced from one message to the next, the display window didn't change. Instead, it kept showing the same message text. I could close the current message window and open a window for the next message, but I kept getting the same message content. At first I thought the file system for my email client was damaged. To test my theory, I opened a command prompt window and looked at the content of my mail files. The files were OK. But when I returned to Eudora Pro, I kept getting the same message text. Seeing more than 50 new messages in my inbox and not being able to read them was beyond frustrating. Clearly, this experience was some form of purgatory.

Ultimately, I had to give up trying to access my email so I could catch my flight. Later, I realized that the ICA client connection was caching the email client area of my screen. For some reason, I ran into a bug in the ICA component and the server was refreshing the window from cache instead of using the actual server content. If I had resized the window, I probably would have avoided the problem. I say probably because that scenario never happened to me again.

Take the Good with the Bad
Although I clearly ran into my share of problems, I must go on record saying that Terminal Server and MetaFrame technology does work. The best evidence I can present is that despite the problems I've encountered using this computing environment, I'm still using that environment today. My continued use of this environment is particularly significant because I have a low pain threshold—it's the same threshold that keeps me from using Windows 98 or Windows 2000 (Win2K—formerly NT 5.0) beta products on any of my important systems. Yes, I had problems, and some of them were serious, but I managed to work through them and continued to be productive on a day-to-day basis.

At the same time, I feel obligated to warn you that adopting Terminal Server and MetaFrame is not a pain-free proposition. Make sure you devote plenty of time to your evaluation of this technology. Make yourself test everything, from applications and printers to network connections, before you deploy a Terminal Server and MetaFrame solution.

Ciao for Now
I have mixed emotions as I write this column, because this is the last Lab Guys column for me. I am moving on to a new life outside of Windows NT Magazine. The work of the Windows NT Magazine Lab will definitely continue, and so will this column, albeit under new leadership. In parting, I want to thank all of you for reading this column and for sharing with me your thoughts about NT technology and products. May your peripheral drivers never crash your production servers.