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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > June 2004
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Vol. 23 No. 6 — June 2004
The View From The Top Left Corner
Managing 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 devices.

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 could—sometimes 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 proposition.

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 be happy.

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 column—first, 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 deadlines.)

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.
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