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COLUMBIA, S.C. – While it may seem counterintuitive, going back to “dumb terminals” may be the wave of the future for many credit unions. Thin-client technology, which relies on a back-office server to power the applications for end users scattered throughout the enterprise, has gained serious traction in the past couple years. The advantages include better security and fewer moving parts, with no fans or hard drives to break down, and no CD or floppy drives that can be used to introduce problematic software or viruses at the user end. In fact, a true thin-client end device doesn’t even have a hard drive. Like the dumb terminals of pre-PC days (many still in use, of course), it simply transmits key strokes and screen shots across the network. “Really, it’s just an enhanced dumb terminal,” says Brad Knutson, vice president of IT at Alcoa Employees & Community Credit Union in Bettendorf, Iowa. “Just an enhanced, text-based terminal talking to a mainframe, in a way.” Of course, the picture is better. Knutson’s credit union uses Thin Star devices with 12.1-inch LCD screens on the teller line and reports a variety of benefits. “The cost is comparable to your first-time costs for a PC. The really long-term savings you see are in maintenance and time,” Knutson says. He says he expects his $110 million, 20,000-member CU to see savings of $75,000 to $100,000 in its four offices over the next five years. But Terri Colson, vice president of technology at $400 million Credit Union 1 in Anchorage, says bluntly: “A huge misconception is that thin client is cheaper. That is false. “From a hardware perspective, if you were to purchase 30 thin-client stations and a thin-client server, the PC’s would be cheaper. From a software perspective, in addition to the standard licenses you would need on a PC, you need a Terminal Services Client Access License for every user on the thin-client server. “For both hardware and software to run thin client for 30 users, it would cost approximately $64,000. The total costs will vary greatly depending on the quantity and type of servers that are purchased.” But for Credit Union 1, there are advantages that made the deployment worthwhile, including bandwidth savings and speed. And software upgrades that only have to made at the home office, not a small consideration for a credit union with 10 branches scattered through Alaska’s vastness. “It requires absolutely no training for end users and lets us `shadow’ users,” Colson adds. “That allows our IT staff to see the user’s screen and the error messages they are getting. For troubleshooting, this is an invaluable tool.” While the actual deployment was relatively painless, there are still some challenges, says Knutson at Alcoa Employees & Community CU, including getting Windows-based programs to work in their new environment. “Some would, some wouldn’t without tweaking and reconfiguring,” he says. “Some we just had to replace with something else. If we couldn’t have gotten all our critical applications functioning, we may not have been ale to do this at all.” The lack of compatibility is something that Colson at Credit Union 1 also cites as a possible drawback when launching thin client. “There is still a lot of proprietary software being used that is non-thin-client compatible, so for these software packages you would still need PC’s,” she says. “The only other disadvantage would be that if your Citrix server crashes and you have only one server, then all of your users can’t work. “For this reason I would never recommend running just one Citrix server.” Currently, most thin-client applications are delivered using servers in either the Citrix or Microsoft Terminal Server environments, but another alternative is emerging – Internet-style browsers. One tech-oriented consultant, Carl Faulkner of Cornerstone Advisors, expects them to become “the dominant user interface in the next five years.” “We are advising our clients to plan to move to a browser thin environment,” says the Arizona-based Faulkner. “It is pretty clear the industry is moving that way. We think this environment will ultimately allow for a true thin client, not a PC, to be deployed on almost every desktop.” He also cites the ability for browser-based deployment to deliver thin-client technology “to any device anywhere the Internet reaches.” Faulkner, in fact, expects all the core CU system providers who don’t already to soon offer browser interfaces to their products, and says that new solutions such as Microsoft’s .Net servers and upcoming Office 11, which will feature XML-based Web services capabilities, may further accelerate the move to browser-based remote application delivery using thin devices. Meanwhile, Stephanie Shah, vice president of marketing and product management at Harland Financial Solutions, says about 20 percent of ULTRADATA clients are now using thin-client technology. She says she sees it “following three technology directional paths.” “One is the ability to access any application from the Internet without the need to make any changes to the application software. “The second is the ability to connect to any of those applications using any device, such as a Windows-based terminal, Macintosh, PDA, Unix-based, Linux-based. “The third direction is to provide better tools to manage the technology more closely. One of these tools is resource management that shows how and when each resource is being used. Another is installation management that enables more simplified deployment of software.” Credit unions now considering deploying thin-client technology also need to consider its place in the overall scheme of things. In addition to soothing the feelings of “power-users” accustomed to loading their own software and managing their own desktops, “another consideration to keep in mind is that a thin-client server deployment should complement your overall network strategy,” says John Schooler, chief technology officer at USERS Inc., which is now configuring new online customers as thin client users. “If you’ve just deployed your first five PC’s, it may be premature to move to a thin client/server environment,” he says. “On the other hand, it may be the ideal time to consider this network topology, since the workstation culture has not yet replaced dumb terminals.” He also sees the accelerating adoption of thin client being helped along by increasing software availability. “Today, more and more suppliers are certifying or offering applications that are compatible with a thin client/server environment – both core processing software and popular desktop applications,” Schooler says. “While compatibility is certainly not universal, concerns about `will this work for all our needs?’ stand less in the way of thin-client/server deployment,” he says “As a result, interest in the thin environment seems to be accelerating.” -

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