Europcar slims IT costs with Linux thin clients

The car hire firm says its has cut hardware and maintenance costs dramatically by migrating 1,500 rental stations to thin clients running Linux
Written by Ingrid Marson, Contributor
Car hire firm Europcar International has migrated thousands of PCs across Europe from Windows fat clients to Linux thin clients, lowering both its hardware and maintenance costs.

The car hire firm has saved on hardware and maintenance costs by migrating its 1,500 stations to thin clients running Linux, but Stefan Ostrowski, the CIO of Europcar, said that while migrating to Linux thin clients has saved them money, but it would not have been as cost effective for them to migrate fat clients to Linux.

"The effort to install or maintain Windows and Linux is the same, though you might save a bit on licence costs," said Ostrowski. "You are not saving a lot by moving fat clients from Windows to Linux. But by converting fat clients to terminal servers we have reduced the total cost of ownership by 60 percent."

Europcar chose to run Linux rather than Windows on the terminals so that it could create a bespoke version of the operating system which included specific inventory, security and remote management tools needed by the company. It has based its bespoke version on Debian.

The main advantage for Europcar in migrating to Linux terminals has been the ability to centrally manage the terminals in its 1,500 rental stations, which are spread across Europe. Ostrowski said this has dramatically reduced the cost of maintaining the systems and in particular the cost of implementing updates.

"Last year we had to patch the [Microsoft] fat clients in the headquarters three times due to security problems," said Ostrowski. "If Europcar had to patch all the European stations three times in one year it would cost €5m."

As all applications used by the terminals are run off the central server, the terminals are not vulnerable to malware or spyware, reducing the need for patching.

The only patches required are updates to the Linux distribution. The patch to the distribution requires only three keystrokes during the installation from a CD-ROM and this means it can be installed by station employees, rather than requiring technicians to travel to the station to carry out the update, said Ostrowski.

Through running applications off a central server, Europcar has also reduced the cost of undoing changes made by employees to the system.

"On the Linux terminals there is nothing except the presentation software which allows users to connect to the central portal -- there is nothing they can install, change or impact," said Ostrowski.

Europcar has also saved costs on hardware by moving to terminal clients. Ostrowski said that it uses thin clients from HP which cost a third of the cost of a normal PC.

Ostrowski said that he initially looked into Linux early in 2003 when he was experiencing problems with Microsoft. Europcar took six months to migrate 90 percent of the 1500 stations to Linux. The final station was migrated to Linux in July 2004.

The company is now working on migrating the 3,500 PCs in its company headquarters to Linux terminals. It is currently creating on an inventory of applications being used in the different countries. For each application it has to decide whether to run the application on the central server and make it accessible by using Java, or whether to put the application on Citrix, according to Ostrowski.

It has already moved Microsoft Office and some other applications to Citrix. Once all applications needed by a particular user are accessible from the central server, users can be migrated to a Linux terminal client.

The desktop operating system is not the only open-source application being used by Europcar. Ostrowski said it is also running its Internet reservation system on Linux and its corporate intranet has been developed using OpenCMS, an open-source content management system.

Whenever the company decides to implement a new system, it looks into the open-source offerings first, said Ostrowski. But, he said it is unlikely to implement an open-source office productivity application, such as OpenOffice.org, in the near future. "I don't think it's ready for the prime time yet," said Ostrowski.

If it did migrate to OpenOffice.org, training could be costly as the trade unions at Europcar have said that all employees would need to be retrained if it migrates to another office application, said Ostrowski. Another issue is the compatibility between Microsoft Office and OpenOffice.org documents, as employees at Europcar headquarters need to exchange documents with its parent company, Volkswagen AG.

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