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Slimming down at Inverell

Slimming down at Inverell

When Inverell Shire Council needed to reduce administrative overheads, the local government staked its reputation on a trailblazing thin client solution.

When Inverell Shire Council’s manager of information services, Lance Oswald, decided to tackle cost blowouts and bandwidth limitations by throwing out the council’s entire inventory of hardware, the stakes could not have been much higher.

Oswald’s job may or may not have been on the line when he decided to emigrate to a thin client solution but both Oswald’s and the council’s reputations most decidedly were. And not only would Inverell be a trailblazer, but the time frames were incredibly tight, with just a tiny window of opportunity for the work to be completed before a new half-million dollar core business property system application was to be introduced.

Fortunately for Oswald and his employer, the gamble has handsomely paid off. Staff members are reasonably happy, the information services area is reaping real productivity benefits, and the council can look forward to hard savings of up to $200,000 a year once a planned migration to StarOffice is complete.

“We’ve already saved about $30,000 or $40,000 in licence costs, and while we don’t technically recognise the productivity savings from an accounting point of view, there are considerable savings that we have costed being realised there also,” Oswald says.

“So far I’d say it’s been reasonably well received. I’m blessed with good staff in the general office, in that as long as they can do what they need to do on a daily basis, how they do it, in a technical sense, they don’t really care about. From the information services area, we’re very happy with the way it’s going. It has certainly started to show a lot of productivity saving for us, just being able to manage every desktop from within our office without having to go on site all the time.”

Governments of all shapes and sizes are under pressure to make all their employees more productive by providing each individual with the optimal IT tools at minimum administrative overhead, while also effectively managing the organisation’s IT environment. One way to do that is to consider a thin client solution. Some analysts have estimated up to four out of every five workers do not need the full functionality available on today’s PCs. While there are compelling arguments for giving knowledge workers PCs, transaction workers, office workers or task workers such as administrators, clerks and customer service staff usually do not need such high levels of computing power. Many of Inverell’s employees fitted this boat.

Making Its Mark

The Shire of Inverell, located on the Macintyre River in the centre of the New England tablelands in northern NSW, spans 8623 square kilometres of rich farming and grazing land dotted with large mineral deposits. The shire council serves a total population of some 16,000 residents, 10,000 of them based in the town of Inverell, while the commercial centre services a target population of 60,000 people from as far away as southern Queensland. The council’s responsibilities run from a pipeline from Copeton Dam on the Gwydir River and associated water treatment plant to a sewage treatment plant and animal saleyards, as well the supply of town and rural services.

For a team of just two people, its information services group punches well above its weight, with its Inverell Online project having already won two national IT awards. Its good name was something Oswald would hate to give up through an ill-advised IT-initiative.

“We’re probably considered one of the leading local authorities in NSW, particularly amongst rural councils, and in particular in our use of IT and the directions that we take in that regard,” Oswald says. “So certainly there was a great deal of credibility on the line. We had a very tight time frame for our new corporate application — six months implementation for that — so we couldn’t afford to have this fail dramatically when we had that other project relying on this to be operational. It would have pushed us back 12 months, and at considerable expense to council.”

Oswald says the IT team began looking to thin client initially as a way to reduce its administrative overhead. “We were getting to the stage where we had eight servers, so multiple operating systems, multiple installs on equipment and that sort of thing. We needed to get a handle on that, and we weren’t really in a position to increase the head count.”

Overkill

Evidence is growing that the payoffs from adopting such a solution can be compelling. But when Inverell had examined thin client for the first time some two years ago, the technology had seemed a little too immature and a tad too unstable for Oswald’s comfort. Only with a technology refresh due late last year (Inverell used to replace one-third of its hardware every 12 months) did a review suggest the time might finally be right for a transition.

An initial pilot conducted by SureBridge on Sun’s ultra thin SunRay clients suggested it would be prohibitively expensive to run on the Shire’s wide area network, so Inverell opted for a Citrix Metaframe system utilising Wyse Winterms on the desktop. The business case incorporated plans to replace Microsoft Office with StarOffice as part of the project. Oswald says the cost benefit analysis was compelling.

Once the pilot was complete, SureBridge developed a three-phase implementation plan in November last year, then Oswald looked for — and won — approval for the business plan from council. “The dollar savings basically won them over,” Oswald says. “It is not going to save us a lot in the leasing for the next three years, but after that period of time, because of the thin clients’ extended life cycle, we identified about $200,000 a year reduction in lease expenses.”

Oswald says the IT team waited until all the equipment was delivered, set up and running before it began swapping out old equipment — mostly Dell PCs — one department at a time. That work is now complete across almost the whole gamut of council operations, with the exception of the depot, where the team has yet to install the infrastructure necessary to run the solution. “Basically we’d just take a department over, take all their data over, drop the units in there and they just logged on and away they went,” Oswald says.

He says staff initially expressed some frustration over their lack of access to CDs and floppy disks under the new system. To overcome those concerns the team has now put one unit in each department capable of providing that access.

Now, as it prepares to install a line into the depot under phase two, which will allow it to use thin clients as well, the council is moving to install StarOffice for all staff.

Oswald says once again, licensing costs were the biggest attraction. It would have cost Inverell close to $50,000 in licensing fees to move across to the new Microsoft licensing model and upgrade to Office 2000 or XP, plus an extra $20,000 or so every couple of years after that for the software assurance. StarOffice will cost it just $1400 in maintenance. And while the team will have to retain Microsoft Office in the short term for those people working with PeopleSoft and applications like Excel, he is hoping in time to work with vendors to overcome that problem.

In the meantime, while he admits to being unsure whether general council workers will lose important functionality in the transition, he says so far they haven’t been able to see much difference.

“It’s the old story that 80 per cent of users use 20 per cent of the product,” Oswald says. “[Most general admin workers] use it as a basic word processor, and we certainly didn’t find anything apart from the application integration that people threw up and said: ‘Well, it can’t do this.’ I’m sure there’s one or two things it can’t do but it is not going to impact us greatly, and the difference in price, the way that Sun are certainly positioning it and the development work that they’re doing, I don’t think there’s going to be that much of a gap between them in the not-too-distant future.”

Not So Easy

While Oswald has absolutely no regrets about the decision he took last year, he says he seriously underestimated the level of technical knowledge and ability the team would need in order to make the solution “sing and dance”.

“The biggest thing we learnt is the lack of our technical ability,” he says. “Certainly when you go across to thin client, you’ve really got to have the gun crew on it, as far as the Windows people as well as the Citrix people go.

“The lesson is, before heading down this track make sure you have got the team identified, and that they’ve got to the level of skill required. You have got to have your network right up to speed, you have got to have the operating systems working A1 — you can’t afford to have anything just out of whack. We’ve had a couple of issues — and we’re working through a few of them at the moment — where we just weren’t quite there.”

Fortunately, the project has been well received. Not only have staff accepted it, but Oswald says the information services area is reaping huge benefits.

“For instance, one of our sites is a 56-kilometre drive away. If they happen to have a problem, we can manage it remotely now. I can also manage the machines and our network remotely: I can dial in from anywhere and away we go.

“Regrets? I wouldn’t say so,” he says.

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