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Highway department detours to server-based computing

A Windows administrator for San Francisco's highway department aims to reduce time spent on desktop maintenance by making the switch to a server-based system. It's a move that involves a lot of heavy lifting on IT maintenance up front, but it offers a payoff within a year if done right, according to analysts.

Mitch Ablove is going the way of server-based computing in hopes of reducing time spent supporting Windows workstations and avoiding hiring more IT staff.

Ablove, the network manager at the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District in San Francisco, is betting a $125,000 slice of his annual budget on a project to reduce time spent assisting users spread across the Bay Area. He didn't have to lobby for more money for the project. Instead, he's using money originally earmarked for PC replacements.

Ablove is switching to server-based computing to ease his increasing Windows and IT management load and avoid having to request an additional administrator. Specifically, he wagers that deploying and supporting applications residing on about 10 Windows 2000 servers instead of 250 Windows desktops will reduce help desk calls.

One study indicates Ablove's move will pay off. Based on its recent research, Giga Information Group of Cambridge, Mass., predicted that a 5,000-employee bank with 50 offices would realize a combined $15 million in savings and increased productivity over three years by making such a switch.

Companies usually see savings within the first year, said John Girard, a vice president and research director at Stamford, Conn.-based research firm Gartner Inc. But he cautioned that setting up a server-based system initially could add to an IT maintenance workload. For instance, administrators must set up a server farm and group policies for server-based application access.

"Once you get over that initial hump, your overall administration activity goes down," Girard said.

For example, when administrators want to roll out a new application, they work just with their servers, instead of each user desktop. "You eliminate version control and version conflict problems for an application," Girard said.

Ablove plans to install Citrix Systems Inc.'s MetaFrame XPe for all 250 users by year-end, but for now he has two servers, one in San Francisco and one nearby in San Rafael, that a half dozen remote users dial in to, Ablove said. Desktops run Windows NT, 2000 and XP.

He plans to have employees use Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Citrix's software to access Microsoft Office and custom-designed applications for payroll and accounting over the organization's virtual private network.

Server-based computing isn't for every company, Girard said. For the data to be secure, users must always be connected to a VPN when working with server-based applications, and the company must have substantial bandwidth.

Some administrators are foregoing server-based computing for other management options, such as Microsoft Systems Management Server and IBM Tivoli platforms, according to Giga research. However, the server-based computing market is strong; it is expected to grow 15% this year, according to research.



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