Putting thin-client/server computing to the test

Achieving success as an early-adopter of emerging network computing technology, especially in a mission-critical WAN/LAN environment, is not for the faint of heart. But that's what UARCO, a $550 million, century-old firm based in Barrington, Illinois, did. The company prints data mailers, cut sheets, pressure-sensitive labels, and various business forms at seven printing plants across the US. Four customer service call centers make more than 200,000 sales quotes yearly and provide order fulfillment services. But UARCO's sales and order fulfillment was based on an inefficient mix of IBM AS/400s, museum-ready Honeywell hosts, and 5250 terminals running on Thicknet coax, and a smattering of legacy PCs and several Novell 2.x LANs. What's more, the total cost associated with maintenance and downtime was growing yearly. A combination of factors, chief of which was re-engineering processes to improve efficiency and customer satisfaction, finally led UARCO to consider upgrading its technology and ultimately incorporating a Windows NT solution.

Making a Transition
UARCO decided to completely transform the enterprise architecture and the order fulfillment process. "We leaped from 1978 technology to 1997 technology and deployed one of the largest NT-based thin-client/server LAN systems in North America," said Karl Gouverneur, director of technology architecture for UARCO. What UARCO did not replace, it recycled. "We salvaged 286, 386, and 486 IBMs, Compaqs, HPs, and clones. If it had a 20MB hard disk, a working video card, and 2MB of RAM, it qualified," Gouverneur explained. Technicians removed each PC's 5250 card (which UARCO recycled into cash), installed Intel's Ether-Express 10/100 NIC, formatted the hard disk, re-installed DOS and Windows, loaded Citrix WinFrame Client 2.0, and tested the configuration. Recycling held some performance surprises, too. "We benchmarked a recycled 386/16MHz running WinFrame with 100 users against a Pentium 100, and the 386 won!" Gouverneur said.

"We embarked on a $21 million, two-year effort to completely re-engineer our systems and processes," said Gouverneur. UARCO completed the effort, dubbed Project Phoenix, in late summer 1997. The core of the project included deploying Citrix Systems WinFrame/Enterprise 1.6 thin-client/server software, Baan TRITON 3.1b Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software, Lotus Notes 4.52 for mail and messaging, and custom-developed applications.

SOLUTION SUMMARY
For its sales and order fulfillment centers, UARCO needed a solution to improve performance while reducing the total cost of ownership. In response, the company implemented a Citrix WinFrame/Enterprise thin-client/server environment. In 12 facilities across the US, the team replaced aging terminal green screens with 500 new Wyse Technology model 2500 Winterms and 500 recycled PCs. Fifty NT Workstation desktop machines and 200 notebook computers running Windows 95 fill out the balance of UARCO's client nodes.

Network architecture at each site includes switched Ethernet (TCP/IP) with a 100Base-T server backbone. CISCO Systems' Catalyst 5000 switches and model 4000 routers take switched/dedicated 10Base-T to the desktop. Hardware on the server side at a typical large site (about 150 thin clients) includes one Citrix WinFrame Terminal server, which is a Compaq ProLiant 5000 or 6000 with quad 200MHz Pentiums and 1GB of RAM, and an NT file-and-print server, which is a single or dual Pentium-class server with 256MB or 512MB of RAM. Mass storage devices are all RAID 5, and the backup solution is an HP SureStore 12000e 4mm tape magazine autoloader. A small site's hardware is a scaled-down version of one of the large sites, in which one server runs Citrix WinFrame and file- and print-sharing services. APC UPS systems provide all sites with power protection.
The Baan ERP system and Lotus Notes, along with changes in work tasks, provided the framework for re-engineering the sales and quoting, ordering, manufacturing, billing, and financial processes. Gouverneur added, "We also upgraded every desktop, every network cable and port, every server and wiring closet, and all furniture and electrical outlets for 12 UARCO facilities." Transforming each of the 12 sites was an intensive, high-pressure process.

"To roll out each site took about four months. Each site took about two weeks to cable and one weekend--a Kamikaze weekend--to install final components. We shut down the facility, installed all components, and got everything up and running Sunday night for testing so that users could log on Monday morning. We ripped everything apart, including desks, the electrical system, cubicles, carpet, wiring closets, and the server room, and re-assembled it all by Sunday night in a single two-shift, 24-hour operation."

A Low-Cost NT Solution
UARCO knew that NT had to be a part of the solution. As Gouverneur put it, "NT is flexible, secure, scalable, stable, and here to stay." He considered deploying NT Workstation on each desktop, implementing Sun Microsystems' JavaStations, and several other alternatives. But UARCO's goal was to slash costs through reducing the total cost of ownership (i.e., setup time, support, initial costs, repair, and management). So UARCO went the thin-client route with the Citrix WinFrame/Enterprise solution on about 1000 nodes in a WAN/LAN TCP/IP environment. (The prevalent Citrix WinFrame deployment is on dial-up architecture with multiple thousands of client nodes.) According to Citrix Systems' H. Scott Kaplan, central regional manager, "UARCO is one of the largest Citrix WinFrame deployments to date in a LAN environment. UARCO has a great team. They did a great job, and they know their technology."

Citrix WinFrame/Enterprise is based on NT Server licensed from Microsoft. It includes two added core technologies: Intelligent Console Architecture (ICA) protocol and MultiWin architecture. The ICA protocol lets the GUI execute on the client while application logic executes on the WinFrame server. The MultiWin component extends the NT operating system, so that multiple users execute applications on the same machine simultaneously (for more information on Citrix WinFrame, see Tim Daniels, "Citrix WinFrame 1.6 Beta," May 1996 and Mark Smith, "Thin is In," September 1997).

Gouverneur was responsible for starting the technical architecture components of Project Phoenix, including hiring additional technology planning and integration team members with heavy experience in NT, Novell, UNIX, TCP/IP internetworking, hardware, and application development. "We used UARCO resources for most of our efforts, including designing, testing, and benchmarking all aspects of the architecture, and for all server configuration and workstation setup. For temporary resource needs, such as the rollout of the infrastructure, we used consultants from IKON Office Solutions," Gouverneur said.

UARCO originally worked with a reseller for Citrix support, but quickly realized that the relationship lengthened the support process. Subsequently, Gouverneur's team worked with Citrix directly under a special support agreement with assigned support technicians. "This arrangement reduced wait times and improved the response from Citrix support," said Scott Sysol, engineer--network and system services, a key member of Gouverneur's team.

UARCO used Advantis, the US provider for the IBM Global Network, to link the NT Primary Domain Controller (PDC) in Barrington to all remote NT and Citrix servers. UARCO uses multiple WAN lines for this connectivity, from fractional T1 up to full T1 speeds.

Gouverneur said, "We developed detailed work plans for each component of the project, tracked actuals vs. budget, and presented status reports compiled in Lotus Notes with custom project management databases." For the first WinFrame/NT rollout, Gouverneur said, extensive testing and troubleshooting accompanied the team's rookie pains at the first and largest facility. "We did about four months of unit, integration, system, and stress testing. Even with all this, we still had scalability problems with WinFrame that Citrix had never encountered. We implemented workarounds and hot fixes and eventually made it all work."

For example, the UARCO team encountered a print spooling problem and had to develop a workaround. "We define printers locally on the Citrix WinFrame server because of a remote procedure call problem with the print spooler," Gouverneur explained. "Users who used to remotely connect to printers from any server now have to go through the Citrix WinFrame server as the print server. This connection creates additional unwanted load on the Citrix server, but we don't have a choice." Gouverneur and his team also reported several WinFrame subsystem, blue screen, and printing problems to Citrix. The company provided several hot fixes that helped solve these troubles.

The UARCO team also experienced server hardware problems with HP's NetServers, but isolated the trouble as buggy Pentium chips. Eventually, UARCO switched to Compaq servers.

"The Monday after the cutover, we trained users in how to log on. Cutover team members helped users get started by setting passwords, familiarizing users with the new system, and showing users how to access the hosts. Our corporate training staff trained users on the Baan ERP software, Lotus Notes, and other apps. After that, the team enjoyed the successful cutover, celebrated, and moved on to the next site," Gouverneur said.

Users access the Baan ERP system through a telnet session and refer to related International Standards Organization (ISO)-compliant work instructions in Lotus Notes to perform customer service in the call centers and to track orders. On each user's node, other software besides WinFrame Client includes Microsoft Office, WRQ Reflections, SoftLinx Replix Fax 3.1, AnswerSoft SoftPhone Agent 3.0, custom Microsoft Visual Basic applications, and intranet Web applications.

Gouverneur's team left little to chance with its contingency plans. Sysol said, "We have a standby WinFrame server for all sites, fully loaded so we can sustain the load if two sites are down because of concurrent outages for multiple hours. We've had only one power supply go bad once, so we have been very lucky. Citrix WinFrame licensing was the biggest stumbling block in the way of maintaining a hot backup server, because Citrix requires a copy-protected diskette for each 10-user pack of licenses. This approach makes licensing a standby server for emergencies difficult and costly. It also makes remotely managing licensing of the servers difficult, because someone must put a diskette in the server's floppy drive." In a special arrangement, Citrix supplied serial numbers that enabled a switchover to a hot backup server without an administrator having to feed floppy disks to the server.

As for the users on the business end of the terminals, Gouverneur said, "They love it. I'd say we have up to 50 percent better productivity as a result of the new solution." Gouverneur remarked that the WinFrame/NT solution not only increases productivity, but also makes administration and support easier. For example, he said, "Our support staff can use the Citrix WinFrame Shadow capability and take over a user's terminal to help solve problems."

Support, administered centrally from Barrington, includes three staff members for remote server administration, two for remote workstation administration, and three to work the Help desk. Sysol said, "NT thin-client computing saves from 70 percent to 90 percent of the cost of maintaining desktop PCs, which would cost UARCO about $8000 per PC yearly. We prefer administering a WinFrame system with Wyse Winterms over NT desktops. This approach is easier because we have to distribute software only once instead of individually on hundreds of desktops."

UARCO management also prefers this solution. According to Gouverneur, officials expect a two-year payback on their investment, through higher quality and customer satisfaction, improved communications, and lower training and system administration costs. For example, UARCO calculates a cost reduction from $16 million to $10 million yearly to provide 200,000-plus price quotes. The project also benefits sales, because accessing Baan ERP through WinFrame reduces order fulfillment from hours to minutes. To read about some of the opinions Gouverneur and Sysol had about the migration, see "An Interview with UARCO."

Looking Ahead
The UARCO team isn't resting on its laurels. Gouverneur related, "We are adding 300 more thin-client nodes for UARCO's Impressions division. Because of the unique business requirements, convincing this division to go with the thin-client model was difficult, but we had a successful pilot that sold them on this idea."

Gouverneur is bullish on the future of network computing and the thin-client model: "The hoopla surrounding thin-client systems is justified." But he cautions that IS managers need to scrutinize the network computing model carefully to ensure that it will benefit users' specific job tasks in a given environment. Thin-client computing isn't for everyone, despite its attractive cost savings. "Customer service reps, administrators, clerks, knowledge workers, and analysts can benefit from thin-client computing. But give PCs to developers, graphics and mobile users, or anyone who needs removable media, more than P5/200 power, or local mass storage devices," Gouverneur remarked. Based on his experience as an early-adopter, Gouverneur said, "I strongly believe the future is bright for WinFrame, and with Microsoft's Hydra, it's even brighter."

CONTACT INFO
TRITON 3.1b
Baan * 415-462-4949 or 31-341-37-5555
Web: http://www.baan.com

WinFrame/Enterprise 1.6
Citrix Systems * 954-267-3000 or 800-437-7503
Web: http://www.citrix.com

ProLiant 5000 and 6000 servers
Compaq * 281-370-0670 or 800-888-5858
Web: http://www.compaq.com

Lotus Notes 4.52
Lotus Development * 617-577-8500 or 800-343-5414
Web: http://www.lotus.com