The View From The Top Left Corner
Minions and Milestones
by Michael Schuyler
This issue is supposed to be about managing computers,
for both staff and the public. I think the phrase might
be an oxymoron. In any case, usage of computers tends
to grow in seemingly random patterns, not always with
much evident control. Their operation is somewhat cyclic,
as I'll show below. What goes around comes around,
shepherded along by folks who think it's all brand-new.
When the original Deep Thought arrived, we already
had a few Apple II microcomputers around. They ran
VisiCalc, dBASE II, and a strange word processor from
Australia called "Zardax." They were, of course, stand-alone
units, and were not networked together, except via
5 1/4-inch floppies and sneakernet.
Deep Thought originally sported 25 terminals, all
directly wired into it via separate ports in the back.
The terminals were proprietary, expensive, and very
stupid, the dumbest of the dumb. They were just glass
screens that faithfully displayed whatever was fed
to them by the multitalented Deep Thought.
Managing these terminals was easy. You turned them
on in the morning. You turned them off at night. If
they broke, you replaced them, set a very simple "poll
code" address in the small amount of memory that they
had, and off you went. We learned all about RS-232C
ports and DB-25 connectors, acquiring skills no longer
necessary in this day of USB ports and plug-and-play
There were no hard drives, no hacks, no viruses,
no spam. It all worked very well until we approached
100 terminals on the system. The addition of an OPAC
had doubled the number of terminals, and "terminal
creep" had taken care of the rest.
Ethernet and Frame Relay
When we replaced Geac with Dynix, we managed to catch
the first wave of something called "Ethernet," along
with a new data communications technology called "Frame
Relay." To place typical dumb terminals on such a system
required the use of "terminal servers," which were
then very expensive. We did the math and figured out
that we could buy PCs instead of terminals, and actually
break even in the process. Why go with the last wave
of the old technology when we could go with the first
wave of the new technology?
We wound up installing over 100 486SX PCs, each with
a whopping 4 megabytes of memory. They all came with
Windows for Workgroups licenses, which we tossed away
in favor of a floppy MS-DOS boot disk and a free form
of telnet. These PCs, though they were legitimate Wintel
machines, were still fairly easy to manage. With no
hard disk and minimal programs, they gave us a foot
into the PC World and one back into the Dumb Terminal
World at the same time. There are still a few of those
around even today, usually back in the stacks as a
text-only window to the catalog.
GUI OPACs 'Ruin' It All
With the advent of GUI OPACs, everything changed.
Some would say everything was ruined. With this client/server
approach, the philosophy was to put the computing power
on the desktop, where it was needed, and the storage
of data on a centralized server, where it could be
maintained. This was a nice theory, except that then
we had hard drives and real PCs out for the public,
with all of the issues that portends.
We were hacked, cracked, spat upon, and challenged
in every way imaginable. Because PCs and the browsers
were versatile, people changed everything they couldsometimes
accidentally, sometimes on purpose. They downloaded
games and files, inserted viruses and trojans, erased
entire directories, and generally trashed the PCs.
It was a nightmare.
After reeling from the original onslaught, we tried
numerous ways of locking down the PCs. Early versions
of Fortres were tried and discarded. The more protections
we added, the more the machines would need to be rebooted.
Finally, we came upon the Centurion Guard technology
(http://www.centuriontech.com), which I've discussed
in previous columns. This is a hardware solution that
locks down PC settings. A reboot restores anything
changed. Coupled with a modern version of Fortres,
this combination has served us well for several years
now. The reboots went down exponentially. Havoc, as
measured by the frustration levels of staff members,
went down considerably. People could still get around
timeouts and find other ways to scam the system, but
it was still a vast improvement.
Now enter thin clients. These little boxes have connections
for keyboard, mouse, monitor, power supply, and Ethernet
cable in a box the size of two fists. They run, in
our case, a version of Windows CE .NET, a kind of watered-down
Windows residing on a chip in the device. (You can
get them with Linux or XP as well.) These all hook
into a cluster of four dual-processor servers in the
computer room, right next to Deep Thought IV, our newest
server from Sirsi. We use plain old "terminal services" to
run sessions on each one of these thin clients.
What Goes Around Comes Around, and Around
So now we've come full circle. The underlying technology
is a bit different, I realize. But we have, in essence,
returned to the dumb terminal model, wherein the "PC" look-alike
is dumb, and the processing power is done mostly on
the server. What goes around comes around.
We have returned to centralized control. No Centurion
Guard is necessary. No one can really hurt the thin
clients. A centralized change or tweak affects all
clients. We don't have to visit each PC separately
to install a change.
We're using the Neoware device sold by IBM. There
are several models, and each comes in a robust metal
case that slips nicely under a monitor. They don't
turn on and off; you just leave them alone. At a cost
of $328 apiece, they are cheaper than most PCs, but
savings are probably offset by the cost of the servers
actually running the applications. It's another break-even
We have just successfully used them with Sirsi Workflows
in training. Indeed, for a while there a week or two
ago, that was the only way Workflows worked,
a problem that was quickly fixed. Today, Comprise Technologies
(http://www.comprisetechnologies.com), having never
worked with thin clients before, is poring over them
to assure that they will work with Comprise's Smart
Access Manager program (SAM). I can't imagine that
they wouldn't, but I'd rather they be sure before I
buy 150 more of them. SAM will be managing timeout,
filtering, and printing issues for us as we get going
on the new system.
In fact, these thin clients are working so well,
I don't see any good reason why they couldn't also
be used for most staff members' systems. You get a
typical login screen for Windows Active Directory.
You get to customize your desktop. You get to run all
of your normal programs. Indeed, to the average user,
it looks just like a PC.
The question then becomes this: If these thin clients
work so well, why is there any reason to keep buying
PCs for anyone? Certain staff members will need real
PCs in the normal course of their work. Tech Services
needs disk space. The Community Relations folks work
with huge files that we'd just as soon they keep to
themselves. But for the average librarians who want
to surf the Net, hack out some documents, or keep a
spreadsheet full of statistics, there's no really good
reason to have a full-blown PC. Get them thin screens
along with their thin clients, and my guess is they'll
Milestones? One Here Too!
In the last issue, Andrew mentioned reaching a milestone
with the publication of his 20th column for this magazine.
With this issue, I've reached a milestone of sorts
myself. This month ends my 18th year of writing this
columnfirst, as my own publication, then, as
incorporated into Small Computers in Libraries under
the aegis of Meckler, and for the last 9 years, under
the professional stewardship of Information Today,
Inc. (The folks at ITI actually expect writers to meet
This is also the last column I'll write as an employee
of Kitsap Regional Library. After 27 years with Kitsap,
I am retiring from my position this summer. I'm surely
going to miss the venerable Deep Thought and all those
blinking lights, not to mention my co-workers, especially
Susan, Nancy, and Al. I'll also miss my daily commute
with Carol. She'll be there for a while yet, so I'll
get my nightly gossip in the hot tub, I'm sure. My
e-mail will change as well (look below).
In September's issue, I'll provide a wrap-up of the
Sirsi conversion project, which will be finished by
then. We'll see where we go from there. There are a
few columns left in me, I trust, and maybe some more
extensive writing. I'm sure it will be an adventure.
Michael Schuyler is the soon-to-be-former
deputy director at Kitsap Regional Library System in
Bremerton, Wash. His new e-mail address is Michael@schuyler.com.