You don't hear much about thin client computing these days. As yet another new tool on the shelf, thin computing was the rage in the mid-1990s, as financial institutions clamored to provide control and security at the desktop by providing networked PCs that held and controlled data at the host.Not gone and certainly not forgotten, thin client computing is experiencing yet another surge in popularity.
By 2010, roughly 30% of U.S. financial institutions of all sizes will be using thin clients for at least a portion of their core business operations, notes Boston- based research firm Celent LLC, which predicts about 60,000 workstation installations overall. In the insurance sector, the increase may be more rapid: Approximately 10% of customer service reps and claims/underwriting processing clerks could move to thin-terminals before the end of 2008, predicts Celent.
Jack Wilson isn't surprised. Amerisure Mutual Insurance Co. brought Wilson in two years ago to help establish an IT strategy. As an enterprise architect who functions at the director level in Amerisure's IT department, Wilson saw what the company was using, and "didn't hesitate to recommend thin clients," he says.
To accommodate the company's 800 employees and 150 independent agents at core service centers throughout the United States, the 100-year-old Farmington Hills, Mich., provider of workers' compensation insurance grew from using a mainframe in the 1960s to midrange systems, to several larger servers residing in several locations.
"Nothing got replaced," he says, "it was just added to the next layer."
Those layers meant that no two PCs were the same, each holding a mix of corporate software versions and personal software, such as games.
"We had a lot of problems with people having different versions of Adobe, and our help desk had a hard time managing that environment," he says. "We realized that to create a more productive work environment, we needed to be flexible and adaptable, and restrict the data and software used at the desktop."
Amerisure's evaluation pointed to another revelation: The company's unique business model did not require a mainframe, much less 24/7, 365-day access to the data.
"The nature of our business is that we don't run 1,000 transactions a minute, much less in a day," Wilson says. "And we realized we needed to implement an IT strategy that would match our business model."
TAKING A FORWARD LOOK
Instead of focusing most of his attention evaluating the systems of the past, however, Wilson decided to take the company forward. In establishing the insurer's new platform, the company opted for the Citrix Access on-demand solution from Citrix, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-not as an end solution, but as an interim strategy to Web-based applications.
"Now all data and associated applications reside in our data center," Wilson points out. "It's one version of the truth, because the same version is served up to everyone on the network via the Citrix server. It's controllable and sustainable."
Wilson says that for its overall strategy, Amerisure agreed to employ the Southwest Airlines model. "Southwest only flies 737s, and the pilots train on 737s only. In our case, keeping it simple (replacing Windows, Unix and five types of resident servers) means we all know how it works and are experts at using it."
Blade technology helps things remain simple: To optimize the new IT infrastructure, the carrier is employing VMware, which provides virtual machines that increase server and other resource utilization to improve performance and security and minimize system downtime. Before working with VMWare, an EMC company from Palo Alto, Calif., Wilson says Amerisure had already purchased several servers. "This technology allows us to slice one physical server into five virtual servers."
CHECKS AND BALANCES
For Wilson and the Amerisure executive team, a more notable benefit of this new platform is the control offered by its inherent checks and balances.
"There's nothing to maintain, so our help desk is free to do other work," he says.
Any software that gets added to the system has to go through Amerisure's IT server group, which conducts a cost justification. The user has to prove the need for it, and in so doing, the server group is able to ensure against duplication.
Of Wilson's forward focus, however, one look back at mainframe computing was warranted: From a user acceptance perspective, Wilson asked new thin client users to think in terms of everything being registered at the host. Wilson winces a bit at remembering the challenge of getting people used to the idea that, with simple two-factor authentication, they can access their application anywhere in the enterprise, essentially taking the application with them wherever they logged on.
"I also feared the staff (members) being resistant to giving up their PCs and being forced to use only low-line version, thin client workstations running on Linux with no special bells and whistles," he says.
Although Amerisure users no longer have a "C" drive, they are able access the Internet. "We put Adobe Flash and Windows Media Player on the system for them, but they are not able to download anything," he reports.
So far, so good. Users are "heads down" at work, and have not complained. Wilson's team completed eight remote installations, each in a weekend, and in the coming months, hopes to get all of Amerisure's headquarters on board, where finance, legal, HR and policy administration, and claims operations sessions all run on Citrix.
"Long term, we'd like to expose Web applications to them," he says. Ultimately agents will have access to claims and billing information using the built-out platform. Further down the road, Amerisure plans to include wireless technology in the offering.
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