Thin clients a permanent fixture at Maroochy Shire

New technology gains legitimacy when it solves real business problems, but becomes indispensable when it offers to take that business in completely new directions. Such has been the case at Maroochy Shire Council, where a quite conventional thin-client rollout is now facilitating new ways of working for employees in the office and on the road.

New technology gains legitimacy when it solves real business problems, but becomes indispensable when it offers to take that business in completely new directions. Such has been the case at Maroochy Shire Council, where a quite conventional thin-client rollout is now facilitating new ways of working for employees in the office and on the road.

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source: Maroochy Shire Council

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Provides a range of local government services to 150,000 residents along Queensland's Sunshine Coast and hinterland.

Like many organisations, Maroochy Shire Council -- a semi-rural coastal council with 150,000 inhabitants located 100km north of Brisbane -- began using Citrix Presentation Server thin-client technology a decade ago to overcome the significant bandwidth limitations between its dozen or so offices, depots, childcare centres and other facilities.

Thin-client technology allows a remote user to access business applications running at the central office, but transmits only a screen image and mouse movements to work smoothly even over slow dial-up connections.

Maroochy's initial rollout served the council well for years, allowing employees to access core applications despite slow connection speeds -- until the Queensland government's increasing investment in state-wide broadband saw fibre-optic broadband trunks laid throughout many parts of Maroochy Shire.

With those networks providing scads of bandwidth between the council's major sites, the need for thin-client technology nearly evaporated overnight, although it was still relevant at far-flung sites where the fibre hadn't reached. Over the past 18 months, however, the council's lateral thinking has leveraged its early thin-client success to drive even more improvements in the way its employees work.

Hitting the road
The most significant use of Citrix technology has come through the mobilisation of the council's 20-strong mobile service department, which handles the endless plumbing and other work involved in keeping the infrastructure behind the council's 1,158 square km coverage area running smoothly.

The key application supporting the service teams is IBM/MRO Software's Maximo asset management system, which tracks the health of, and all work done to, the council's key infrastructure assets. In the past, the department's employees were able to use a virtual private network (VPN) based solution to access Maximo from remote sites, but server support specialist, Perry Bucci, says the solution was "a little clunky compared with the Citrix environment".

Perry Bucci, Maroochy Shire Council

Aiming to improve the situation, the council last year provided each service technician with a Panasonic Toughbook laptop and Telstra CDMA 1xRTT Communication Card, which provides Internet access over Telstra's CDMA mobile network.

The Telstra service provided around 128kbps of bandwidth to the drivers in many areas of the shire, giving them direct access to Maximo, e-mail, Microsoft Office and other relevant business applications from the field. This access proved to be a major improvement for the drivers, since they could report on work completed and receive new jobs straight from the driver's seat.

Given the council's large geographical area and undulating topography, however, drivers soon found that mobility comes with its own share of headaches: as the trucks passed out of coverage areas (such as travelling behind a hill) the connection to the Citrix server would be lost -- requiring the driver to manually log into the system again once the connection was re-established.

To fix this problem, Maroochy installed the Citrix Access Gateway, a proxy authentication server appliance that manages user sessions and includes the ability for sessions to remain live for a set period even when the connection is interrupted. This ensures the drivers remain connected throughout their working day, making application access something they can take for granted as they work.

That access has proved particularly useful since Maroochy began providing the mobile service team with direct access to the council's SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) system, which enables remote monitoring and operation of pumps, valves and other physical infrastructure elements.

The SCADA system runs on its own network, and in the past had been accessible through a dedicated dial-up connection that was flaky at best and unavailable at worst. "We had security issues around it and the performance was rubbish," Bucci says. "If someone at the depot left the phone off the hook, it wouldn't work."

A new link between the Citrix servers and the SCADA network allows tightly controlled access by technicians who can now turn pumps and valves on and off from the field -- rather than having to ring someone else at the council to do it for them. Since access to the control system is clearly highly sensitive, users are authenticated using dual-factor RSA SecurID tokens.

The new working style
The thin-client environment is still supporting users at the few depots with slow connections and has delivered considerable benefits for field workers -- who are "the cornerstone of the mobile effort," as Bucci puts it -- but Maroochy isn't stopping there.

We had security issues around it and the performance was rubbish. If someone at the depot left the phone off the hook, it wouldn't work.

With Web-based thin client access well and truly established, for example, teleworking council employees are utilising the Citrix technology to access their desktops from home -- making the technology a key plank in the council's commitment to support more workplace flexibility for its employees. Citrix is available to council employees at every level of the organisation, with around 150 of the council's 1,000 employees actively using the technology.

Travelling employees regularly use the technology to access their office desktop PCs, which were only recently upgraded to Windows XP and are synchronised with the Citrix server using a common desktop profile. This approach keeps training and support costs low by ensuring the thin-client Web access and fat-client desktop PC environments stay in close synchronisation.

Easier access to application environments has also proved to be a boon for developers, who use the thin-client technology to access a standalone pre-production network where new software is tested before being rolled out across the company. The ability to access that network via the Citrix client has proven to be a major step forward, since the closed nature of the network previously meant it was only accessible from desktop PCs specifically connected to it.

"We've been able to tunnel from our production network straight onto these other networks and deliver to those environments the everyday desktop," says Bucci. "Usage is increasing, and [where we go from here is] really a question of how far we can push it and what new fancy things we can think of."

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