Thin clients...Lessons learned

We're up to 55 thin clients in our library, main computer lab, and a small testing area now, rolled out and working pretty well.  As many as 200 students a day use these machines in class and usage is up significantly over the previous labs.

We're up to 55 thin clients in our library, main computer lab, and a small testing area now, rolled out and working pretty well.  As many as 200 students a day use these machines in class and usage is up significantly over the previous labs.  Do they work as brilliantly as everyone expected?  Not exactly...The rollout has certainly not been without its hurdles ("But they're brand new!  How can we have any problems?!!"), but as we work out the kinks, things are going remarkably well.  45 more will be deployed in the last weeks of school as we step up stress testing and fine-tune load balancing and networking issues.

Of course, any new system will have kinks.  End users have little understanding or tolerance for kinks.  As I reminded the staff in a faculty meeting last week, Rome was not built in a day, nor was a shift to server-centric computing completed overnight.  This rollout is actually being completed in the context of school-wide renovations and I almost held off until this summer, knowing that new wiring would be in place and that all of the terminals I installed would need to be moved anyway.  However, as our current systems were in desperate need of upgrade, I've proceeded with the intallation and am using this first round of installs to debug, such that the complete system is running smoothly in the fall.

So what kind of kinks, exactly am I talking about?  Well, the wiring to be installed in the renovated spaces this summer will go a long ways towards solving some reliability issues.  Performance (in terms of applications and on-screen lag) have been truly impressive and, in fact, haven't received a single complaint. However, it's quite easy to determine banks of computers still using older cabling or tied into older switches as these have a tendency to boot users from their sessions.  Fortunately, as soon as the users reconnect, all of their work is ready and waiting for them.

This ability to move between computers and maintain access to their files has been a favorite feature for the students and I wish I had implemented roaming profiles and folder redirection a long time ago.  Students can do research with a class in the library, save a file in their My Documents, and then access that same file in another room for their PowerPoint or Word class.  Nothing revolutionary for a lot of folks, but certainly a big deal for kids used to sneakernet.

The biggest problem actually stemmed from a setup issue with Active Directory that prevented folder redirection for a while.  Thus, the full user profiles were growing rapidly on the terminal servers (rather than on our spiffy new file server) and we quickly ran out of disk space.  Windows profiles are really big (and it doesn't take too many PowerPoint shows or websites to make them a lot bigger).  Folder redirection is a must to make this work well and it certainly eases backup if you have a single file server (or servers with replicated data) handling the largest parts of the students' profiles.  Alternatively, especially if you are looking at a smaller implementation, don't skimp on the hard drives for your terminal server(s).  Even Edubuntu and LTSP can benefit from some big ol' hard drives and terabytes are cheap these days.

From my perspective, software installation is a breeze and central administration has saved me a lot of time, even with the added time spent on training, debugging, etc. Now I just need to pull a few thousand feet of cable, deploy 45 more clients machines, and move and redeploy the existing 55, and we'll be good to go.  I wonder if I can convince my wife to forego a vacation this summer and teach her how to use a set of crimpers?