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Converting a Windows network to Linux and Thin Clients

We have a customer who works in the home care field, they have caregivers who visit residential homes and provide non-medical in home care.  In total there are 70 people, about 10 in their corporate office and 60 caregivers in the field.  We are dealing exclusively with their office network and those 10 users here.

Current Problems/challenges:
1.Constant virus and malware issues
2.Aging computers
3.Multiple versions of Windows (XP, XP Pro, Vista Pro, Vista Home, Vista Media Edition, Win 7 Home, Win 7 Pro)
4.The CPA who works on their Quickbooks comes to their location once a week and displaces someone from their workstation in order to do the books
5.No real server, just a Win 7 desktop computer with file-sharing and no permissions structure
6.No Firewall
7.No Remote Access
8.No centralized printing
9.Employees often want to work from someone else’s workstation or desk
10.No off-site backups of data

Solution:
An LTSP (Linux Terminal Server Project) multipurpose server with a virtualized XP instance on top.

The hope was to solve all of the problems with a long term solution for under $10K and under $300 proactive monthly maintenance costs.

How it worked and some of the challenges:

The first challenge in converting any Windows network (or group of workstations in this case since they had no domain controller, real server or managed network) is to see what will and won’t work on Linux.  One thing that has enabled us to do more Linux conversions is the popularity and growth of web based software. Their industry software for scheduling and CRM went 100% web based earlier in the year.  That, along with web based email meant we had little left in Windows only software to be run locally.

The 3 Windows based software applications left were Quickbooks, Microsoft Publisher and Microsoft Office.

First, the easy one, Publisher.  There are a few desktop publishing programs for Linux (all free) and we chose Scribus as the Publisher replacement.  They tried Scribus and didn’t really like it.  So we enabled Publisher on their virtual XP instance. (more about that a little later)

The second was Quickbooks…I will refrain from any IT negative comments on the monster that is QuickBooks, but alas almost everyone uses it and supporting it well distinguishes us from other IT vendors.  We had three options here, our virtual application server here in our data center where could give them a login to a virtual Windows desktop where their QuickBooks would be hosted, the second option was to create a Windows virtual machine on their LTSP server and the third to use QuickBooks’s cloud based offering where all data and computing is done on Intuit’s servers through a web browser.   We opted for the second, but just barely.  Really either of the first two solutions would have worked just fine, but keeping their QuickBooks on the in-house server was their preference.  QuickBooks’s cloud based offering is getting better, but still lacks some functionality and leaves you at the mercy of an Internet connection.  I would however speculate that this will become a more viable option very soon.

Along with QuickBooks installed on the virtual XP instance, we loaded a VPN onto the server so the CPA or the bookkeeper could log in remotely and work on QuickBooks or see anything else on the network.  This meant the CPA would no longer have to travel to the customer to do QuickBooks work.  (travel time the client was being billed for)

Third was Microsoft Office.  That one is fairly easy, Oracle’s Open Office has matured to the point where almost anyone can replace their Microsoft Office with Open Office and be on their merry way.  With a few exceptions in Excel and PowerPoint and the lack of Outlook, Open Office does everything Microsoft Office does, and with less horsepower required from the hardware.  Oh and it’s free…it never gets old telling clients we replaced something expensive with something free.

The switch from Windows Desktops to Linux is fairly painless for 90% of users.  A few things are in different places and like any conversion it takes a little getting used to, but there are generally no revolts or mutinies.

When we convert from stand-alone desktops to thin clients we will choose one of a few options for the desktop hardware.
1.We may just remove the desktop machine and replace it with a thin client, generally $250-$400 depending on setup.  $300 is the average
2.We may leave the desktop just like it is, even leaving the Windows OS complete in place and just tell the BIOS to net-boot from the server. (this works well just in case there are surprises like “oh I totally forgot we use Windows to XYZ” and you have to go back to Windows for something temporarily)
3.We may rip out the hard drives and strip the desktop machine down to essentially a bulky thin client with as few moving parts as possible.  (since the moving parts will die in a computer)

As the converted desktop machines die over time we replace them with thin client units and the savings  are substantial and more than just dollars.
1.The customer does not have to pay to have a PC built or configured.  Aside from the hardware savings, there is no setup, just add a user on the server (10 minutes of tech time)
2.The thin client unit itself is roughly one third the cost of a good desktop machine
3.The thin client lasts almost twice as long, so once again half the cost
4.It uses less than half the power of a desktop machine (you would be surprised how fast this adds up)
5.The thin client takes up about 1/10th the space of a desktop machine
6.You can extend the life of a 5 year old desktop that would normally be obsolete by converting it to a thin client
7.Any user can sit down at any desk, login and blamo it’s as if they were at their own desk
8.When a machine dies, you toss it and plug in your spare thin client, it’s a 90 second process

In the end the solutions works great and everyone is happy. It took us about two weeks to work out the bugs and little tweaks.  Not every printer wants to be plugged into a Linux LTSP server, so we made one printer change.
We did the whole project for under $6K with about $300 in monthly costs (including backup services)

Notes:
At one point we discussed housing their LTSP server here in our data center and having all work be remote login, but opted against due to flaky Comcast connection and no redundancy options for Internet.
We generally roll Debian based Linux systems and prefer Ubuntu for desktops.
Our experience is thin clients in general last anywhere from 8-10 years.  The average desktop is 4-6 with just under 5 being the average.

We did have a real issue with a couple models of HP desktops booting well from the LTSP server. Some of HP machines now are so proprietary it takes some bios tweaks to make them do anything other than run their native OS they were built for.

Converting a Windows Network to Linux Thin Clients:

We have a customer who works in the home care field, they have “caregivers” who visit residential homes and provide non-medical in home care. In total there are 70 people, about 10 in their corporate office and 60 caregivers in the field. We are dealing exclusively with their office network and those 10 users.

Current Problems/challenges:

  1. Constant virus and malware issues

  2. Aging computers

  3. Multiple versions of Windows (XP, XP Pro, Vista Pro, Vista Home, Vista Media Edition, Win 7 Home, Win 7 Pro)

  4. The CPA who works on their Quickbooks comes to their location once a week and displaces someone from their workstation in order to do the books

  5. No real server, just a Win 7 desktop computer with file-sharing and no permissions

  6. No Firewall

  7. No Remote Access

  8. No centralized print sharing

  9. Employees often want to work from someone else’s workstation or desk

  10. No off-site backups of data

Solution:

An LTSP (Linux Terminal Server Project) multipurpose server with a virtualized XP instance on top.

The idea was to solve all of the problems with a long term solution for under $10K and under $300 ongoing maintenance costs.

How it worked and some of the challenges:

The first challenge in converting any Windows network (or group of workstations in this case since they had no domain controller, real server or managed network) is to see what will and won’t work on Linux. One thing that has enabled us to do more Linux conversions is the migration to web based software. Their vertical application software for scheduling and CRM went 100% web based earlier in the year. That, along with web based email meant we had little left in Windows only software to be run locally.

The 3 Windows based software applications left were Intuit Quickbooks (QuickBooks), Microsoft Publisher and Microsoft Office.

First, the easy one, Publisher. There are a few desktop publishing programs for Linux (all free) and we chose Scribus as the Publisher replacement. They tried Scribus and didn’t really like it. So we enabled Publisher on their virtual XP instance.

The second was Quickbooks…I will refrain from any IT negative comments on the monster that is QuickBooks, but alas almost everyone uses it and supporting it well distinguishes us from other IT vendors. We had three options here, our virtual application server here in our data center where could give them a login to a virtual Windows desktop where their QuickBooks would be hosted, the second option was to create a Windows virtual machine on their LTSP server and the third to use QuickBooks’s cloud based offering where all data and computing is done on Intuit’s servers through a web browser. We opted for the second, but just barely. Really either of the first two solutions would have worked just fine, but keeping their QuickBooks on the in-house server was their preference. QuickBooks’s cloud based offering is getting better, but still lacks some functionality and leaves you at the mercy of an Internet connection. I would however speculate that this will become a more viable option very soon.

Along with QuickBooks installed on the virtual XP instance, we loaded a VPN onto the server so the CPA or internal accounting could log in remotely and work on QuickBooks or see anything else on the network. This meant the CPA would no longer have to travel to the customer to do QuickBooks work. (travel time the client was being billed for)

Third was Microsft Office. That one is fairly easy, Oracle’s Open Office has matured to the point where almost anyone can replace their Microsoft Office with Open Office and be on their merry way. With a few exceptions in Excel and PowerPoint and the lack of Outlook, Open Office does everything Microsoft Office does, and with less horsepower required from the hardware. Oh and it’s free…it never gets old telling clients we replaced something expensive with something free.

The switch from Windows Desktops to Linux is fairly painless for 90% of users. A few things are in different places and like any conversion it takes a little getting used to, but there are generally no revolts or mutinies.

When we convert from stand-alone desktops to thin clients we will choose one of a few options for the desktop hardware.

  1. We may just remove the desktop machine and replace it with a thin client, generally $250-$400 depending on setup. $300 is the average

  2. We may leave the desktop just like it is, even leaving the Windows OS complete in place and just tell the BIOS to net-boot from the server. (this works well just in case there are surprises like “oh I totally forgot we use Windows to XYZ” and you have to go back to Windows for something temporarily)

  3. We may rip out the hard drives and strip the desktop machine down to essentially a bulky thin client with as few moving parts as possible. (since the moving parts will die in a computer)

As the converted desktop machines die over time we replace them with thin client units and the savings are substantial and more than just dollars.

  1. The customer does not have to pay to have a PC built or configured. Aside from the hardware savings, there is no setup, just add a user on the server (10 minutes of tech time)

  2. The thin client unit itself is roughly one third the cost of a good desktop machine

  3. The thin client lasts almost twice as long, so once again half the cost

  4. It uses less than half the power of a desktop machine (you would be surprised how fast this adds up)

  5. The thin client takes up about 1/10th the space of a desktop machine

  6. You can extend the life of a 5 year old desktop that would normally be obsolete by converting it to a thin client

  7. Any user can sit down at any desk, login and blamo it’s as if they were at their own desk

  8. When a machine dies, you toss it and plug in your spare thin client, it’s a 90 second process

In the end the solutions works great and everyone is happy. It took us about two weeks to work out the bugs and little tweaks. Not every printer wants to be plugged into a Linux LTSP server, so we made one printer change.

We did the whole project for under $6K with about $300 in monthly costs (including backup services)

Notes:

  • At one point we discussed housing their LTSP server here in our data center and having all work be remote login, but opted against due to non-redundant Internet connections

  • We generally roll Debian based Linux systems and prefer Ubuntu for desktops.

  • Our experience is thin clients in general last anywhere from 8-10 years. The average desktop is 4-6 with just under 5 being the average

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