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Sun 10 Feb 2008 04:00 AM

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Ray of light

Faced with an overworked IT staff and a mounting volume of support calls, Savings and Credit Bank decided to think out of the box and install thin clients in place of traditional desktops.

Faced with an overworked IT staff and a mounting volume of support calls, Savings and Credit Bank decided to think out of the box and install thin clients in place of traditional desktops.

Kuwait's Savings and Credit Bank (SCB) has become the first financial institution in the country to roll out a large scale deployment of Sun Ray thin clients from Sun Microsystems, as a part of a wide ranging effort to centralise its desktop operations and support.

Before the Sun Ray, a user could do whatever he wanted – install applications, use a USB drive to remove confidential bank data and so on. Now, everything is controlled - users are only given the applications they want and USB access is blocked for main users.

Fawzi Al Asfoor, operation and technical support supervisor for SCB, explains that SCB had been actively searching for a better means of administering its 450 users, many of whom were monopolising the limited time of his 50 strong IT team for minor support issues.

The bank also wanted to centralise its storage architecture, while providing high availability for its core database, mail and file server operations.

Osama Albaz, account manager for Diyar United's Information Management Group - the firm that performed the implementation for Sun - says that the complete integration took just one month to conduct.

Four staff from Diyar installed the Sun Rays in two weeks, while five SCB employees used the remaining weeks to test the systems on the main database, before certifying them ready for production.

Albaz says that Al Asfoor's IT department was the first to make public the main driver behind the Sun Ray project - a need to provide high availability while minimising administrative support through the new thin client systems.

"Everyday, you would find queues of people making their applications for getting loans.

These people described the old server as slow, and having only one represented a single point of failure. If the server required downtime for repairs, there would be no service offered at all to the users. So SCB were searching for a high availability solution with improved performance. There was a pain, which IT had to respond to," says Albaz.

In terms of measures to indicate an effective ROI, Al Asfoor names providing continuous data protection and effective business continuity as his key goals. Sun Rays also had potential for significant cost savings over traditional desktop systems.

"We compared the cost for buying new desktops every two years and supporting it, versus the savings which the Sun Rays will provide. Sun has no need to upgrade user thin clients because there is no memory or CPU to upgrade," he explains.

When SCB approached Sun and Diyar, its main requirement was that it be shown a live proof of concept, as evidence that thin clients could actually replace desktops in regular usage. As Albaz recalls, this was the key moment for Diyar during the decision process.

"Even when it came to Sun Ray, which is a true thin client, it was not an easy task to tackle, especially with the changes needed for the user side sessions.

We took their application requirements and made a proof of concept implementation in a small environment to show them the benefits of Sun Ray and how it would look when it goes live.

It was also a chance for them to test it, before going to management and getting approval for the project," he says.
While a number of thin client options are available from a variety of vendors, Albaz explained why Diyar recommended Sun Rays to SCB: "When you look at other thin clients in the market, you find that there is for example, built in memory, or operating systems that you need to manage.

But Sun is not an operating system at all - everything is centralised. We took this environment and translated it to a solution. It was a tough thing for Diyar because both the IT and business departments evaluated it before taking the strategic decison to transfer to this new thin client architecture.

Albaz says that the project was first mooted in January 2006, with eventual completion planned for November that year and the contract awarded to Diyar in August. He admits that he was surprised when the project was completed in less than two months.

"We expected it would take a lot of time; however it went fine, even during testing. A major reason for this was Sun's open standards and open source system, which had binary compatibility. So moving from the old to the new systems did not require any compilation," states Albaz.

Though the actual implementation proceeded without incident, Al Asfoor met with resistance from his users when he introduced them to the new system: "The users didn't easily accept the fact that I can provide what a PC can do or even better.

Albaz further adds: "Some users would say, ‘No, I don't want this.' It's cultural acceptance - they ask, ‘What I know a PC should have is three GHz, four Gbytes, DVD rewriteables, memory and so on.' When we give them just a screen and keyboard, they kept asking why it was different from before.

This resistance to the new system was only overcome when Albaz personally explained the benefits of the system to the users: "We used to go there and tell them, ‘look, why do you need a PC? Your applications are still available." It didn't make a single difference for them.

Another challenge was ensuring that the various remote sites had sufficient bandwidth to handle the increased demands of the thin client system.

"For the Sun Ray architecture, the data which is flowing between the user and the server is just on the screen, it's not the actual data, which is in the server.

When they browse the internet and download a one Mbyte file, it's not being downloaded to the branch - it's downloaded in the main office. For them it's like a remote office. Using Sun Rays is like having a long cord for keyboard and mouse and LCD. So it was a challenge for us to map for it," he adds.

Post implementation, Al Asfoor says SCB has seen a dramatic reduction in the volume of support calls, from nearly 30 a day to close to zero at present. Major upgrades such as software service packs, which used to require a visit from a technician to every desktop, can now be applied at the server level with immediate effect for the client systems.

Albaz believes internal security has also improved: "Before the Sun Ray, a user could do whatever he wanted - install applications, use a USB drive to remove confidential bank data and so on. Now, everything is controlled. Users are only given the applications they want and USB access is blocked for the main users.

"Performance has increased more than 200 times. A job which previously took more than two or three hours now takes four to five minutes. Even, backup which would take two hours previously, now takes just 20 minutes. It's a big difference," concludes Al Asfoor.

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