It’s In To Be Thin

By Jason Paquette, Product Marketing Manager, InSource Solutions

Replacing “thick” clients, such as a PC, can demand a high initial investment. Once set up, they can pay for themselves in a short period of time with many advantages that PC’s simply can’t provide. Most standard computing configurations include both software and hardware integrated into a standalone system. In an industrial setting, this computer may rely on different servers to share applications, provide network manageability, and utilize other aspects of the overall network. Allocating a PC to every HMI provides maximum functionality, but can be a costly solution with both reliability and security risks. A thin client solution can often handle the majority of the processing needs in industrial applications to gain greater visibility into your processes with added ease of deployment. Software installation, patches, and security updates are more easily completed because they’re all handled in one place. Managing disk space, memory, and processor usages is easier on one machine than managing 50 HMI’s. Backing up is quicker and recovery is much faster. Changes can be made quickly and rolled out across a wide distributed user base with no intervention from the end user.

Thin Clients

Advantech thin clientThin client technology from manufacturers such as Arista andAdvantech have come a long way in the past decade to the point where users would find it difficult to know the difference between a “fat” client (PC) and a thin client. They’re loaded with ports for peripherals and some are capable of supporting up to 4 monitors. Simply plug your monitor and keyboard into the thin client and you have the full capability of a PC. Industrial thin clients can be placed right on the factory floor; they are engineered in rugged, fan-less enclosures with no moving parts, like hard drives, protecting them from industrial manufacturing environments. Reduced power consumption is another benefit of a thin client. Most thin clients use 10 watts of power, while most PC’s use 150. That’s 95% savings in power consumption. Thin clients have an average life span of 8 years, twice as long as the 4 year average life span for a PC.

Security

Thin clients are endpoint devices with limited storage and computer processing that function through a network connection to a server and does not include any local storage. On typical thin clients, users do not have local access to the desktop operating system and are not able to install software from or copy sensitive data to removable media. Thin clients are generally resistant to tampering, so the odds of the device becoming infected with malware are very slim.

Thin Client management

RDP (Remote Desktop Access) allows network administrators to remotely diagnose and resolve problems encountered by users. RDP properties include encryption, smart card authentication reduction, resource sharing, and multiple display ability. The protocol has it’s security issues, however. As an example, if an administrator opens a thin client connection between computers, a hacker who is able to break into the RDP connection would have administrator privileges on both computers.

Fortunately, there are software packages such as ACP ThinManager® that allows unprecedented control and security in a sustainable, scalable platform regardless of the size of your industrial environment or number of facilities. ThinManager’s thin client architecture gives users the applications and tools familiar to them in a format that reduces management and hardware costs while increasing security.

By acting as a centralized management solution, ThinManager seamlessly integrates with your HMIs and other applications, while providing a number of features, tools, and methods of access, making it simple to monitor and adjust user sessions from anywhere. ThinManager ready thin clients can be replaced with a single click of the mouse, with the new unit assuming the old unit’s identity and displaying the old unit’s session.

Mobility

With mobility all around us, you can now use RDP on a phone or tablet. There are a variety of scenarios where remote desktop access provides the benefit of flexibility. People at one branch office or in the field can remotely connect to computers in another branch office or HMI on the plant floor using only their mobile device.

ACP has addressed this issue as well with a product called Relevance. Relevance extends your ability to manage every device by bringing a powerful mobile administration tool set to the ThinManager thin client management platform. Applications and information can now be delivered based on location. This will allow your staff the option to have information automatically become available on mobile devices upon entering an area or scanning an ID. Then, upon leaving the area, the information will be removed from the screen or hidden unless accessed by an authorized user. Other features include the ability to share screen information with other devices based on proximity or login. Now an administrator can see the same screen on his mobile devices that a technician is accessing on a computer without having to look over the shoulder or switch seats. The access can be view only or interactive. ThinManager Relevance is ultra-secure as all data is stored on secure central servers and no data is saved locally. If a device is lost or stolen, no information or administrative paperwork is compromised. Relevance supports Android OS, Apple iOS, and Windows mobile platforms.

High Availability

Now for the heavy lifting. You’ve invested in industrial thin clients. You have the tools to manage them. Now, you need a place to run all your applications. You need to establish a high-availability environment, as you don’t want any of your applications going down. Clustering is a complex and costly endeavor. All require at least a two-node cluster to enable failover protection. In an environment comprised of many hosts, each node belonging to the cluster must be identified and appropriate network connectivity between them established. This solution also requires an external storage array. It is then necessary to configure a number of settings to determine how the cluster will behave and ensure that adequate resources are available in the event of a failover.

Stratus ftServerStratus ftServers® are built on cost-effective industry-standard hardware powered by Intel multi-core processors. Installation is faster and easier, offering full support for all standard virtual machine products with no additional configuration work or system modifications. A typical high availability (HA) or fault tolerant (FT) cluster could take several days to install, configure, and validate considering the requirements to provide multiple servers, dedicated cluster networking, and shared storage. A Stratus ftServer can typically be installed in a few hours.

Stratus ftServers are designed to offer a complete, integrated solution for ensuring continuous application availability. They require no additional servers, networking, or storage. Only one license is needed for the operating system and application compared to multiple licenses in a cluster scenario, lowering total costs. In addition, ftServer systems average eight years in service, enabling IT organizations to stretch budgets and minimize upgrade cycles.

Conclusion

Going thin can bring a tremendous value to any manufacturing organization. It is one of the most reliable and resilient ways to manage software and hardware. Thin clients provide seamless desktop experiences, relieving IT security worries, and saving money in both power consumption and maintenance. Thin computing and thin client devices provide anytime, anywhere access to your computing environment and deliver a compelling user experience. Going thin is in!