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I've set up 3 organizations now to use thin clients + virtualized xp workstations and it seems to be working rather well. I was thinking of moving from on-site servers at the customer prem to a hosted service model and service a larger audience.

My question is: Has anyone tried this before? Can anyone offer advice on obstacles I may encounter (other than bandwidth and hardware resource issues)?

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You have quite a few questions there. Let's see how well I can answer them...

My only question is with constant patches and updates whether for the OS or AntiViruses...Would you eventually have to recreate a new virtual image for each machine so the delay between restores and a person's ability to work wouldn't exponentially increase each time a machine breaks down over the long term?

Yes there are a lot of patches but you're better off having a patched machine when users invariably end up visiting web sites they shouldn't be on. I've had some luck using to filter traffic but some things still get through. As for permissions, if they're an AD user or guest account they don't have the ability to install thrid party software so they can't install spyware infested screen savers or quickbooks for that matter. My suggested method is to create a master image, configure my documents, favorites and desktop redirection to a NAS share and update the master image periodically and distribute it to the client profiles.

What would the backup / restore system and procedures be like for an organization? The only thing I can think of are scheduled backups on each workstation...then data restores to a clean box you can restore the files onto and recreate a virtual image of that.

I think that the NAS and folder redirection does the trick (see above).

Does the VMWARE Server edition have the ability to push virtual images down into the workstation? Or does this have to be done manually? Would SAN devices that use "snapshots" as a backup method rather than media or online data transfers help it'd be a little costly though but just a thought...

Good thinking!

VMware can dynamically provision and stream workstation images initiated by client requests but you need the enterprise version. By the way, there is a company doing something like this already. I came across them some years ago - one of our local banks use it. It's called Clearcube ( but it's a bit cost prohibitive since you have to purchase both the hardware and the software license from them.

I believe that the challenge for such a service offering is finding the target audience. Small businesses with less than 5 machines have no need for something like this - they can just go to Best Buy and pick up some cheap workstations when one fails. As for larger organizations, they already have an IT staff. A good installation could be a library or internet cafe but I'm looking for ideas.

I'm trying to wrap my head around this - are you proposing (and implementing) a 1:1 ratio of Thin-Client to its own, dedicated XP Virtual-Machine?

If so, I'd think that will become very expensive on the Hosting end as you scale up. Do you really need a dedicated WinXP VM for each Thin-Client?

If your customers' needs are so low that they can get by with Thin-Clients, why not just go with the original Multi-User model of "One Large" (now Virtual) Windows Server Machine with Citrix or MS Terminal Services enabled? That way, the one "beefy" Virtual Machine is servicing multiple Thin-Client users, and it reduces the number of VMs you need to maintain.

Essentially, this is "Vertical Scaling", whereas you appear to be doing "Horizontal Scaling".

I've done a lot of this kind of work, back when I was building out a CRM solution that was to run across half the 'Vegas Strip.

Speaking of viruses... I recall an incident where EVERYONE in Corporate IT was on "Emergency Duty" one weekend to patch all our Thin-Stations. Those darn things were based on Windows CE in Firmware, and fell victim to a nasty Windows-Based worm that was multicasting and wreaking havoc on the networks. 'Good thing we had some kick-butt Managed Switches, or we'd have been toast. :-)
You are absolutely right. I started with this mentality. Why not setup one terminal server, a buch of thin clients and let them have at it? I posed this question to someone who had more experience than me with such installs are here is what I found out:

- Different companies use different line of business apps in different departments. These LOB apps usually conflict. They also have compatibility issues with server environments. For instance, DOE accounting apps won't work. Neither will credit check or travel agency apps. It's easier to guarantee compatibility when things are just straight XP.

- Printing. Install too many different print drivers onto one server and poof, MS's spooler crashes. I'm actually working with MS now on this very problem on a server with 30 thin clients running an LOB vb app. My advise to anyone who has run across this problem - try ThinPrint.

- Working offline. It appears that sometimes individuals want to take their work with them. A user can run an image on just about any laptop using a USB stick, work on their files, etc. and then return the image to the server once they get back into town.

- Resource allocation. If you have one user performing a processor or resource intensive task it takes everyone down. Not so with virtualized workstations. One user goes banannas and everyone else keeps running.

- Licensing. MS Office definitely doesn't run in terminal server mode. You have to purchase the terminal server version of the software. I suspect that other apps probably have similar licensing restrictions.

Sorry to hear about your thin clients. I remember some years back I came across a similar event with the blaster virus. It took down a bunch of our sql machines. It was funny. When we called Microsoft for support at 5am we got someone right on the phone (even their IVR was down!). It turns out that blaster had taken down their entire infrastructure...

What kind of CRM package were you working on?
I ended up doing this ubuntu by the way. Works great.

I agree, microsoft licensing makes this project a little scary. I wonder how well this might work using ec2. Limitless expandability, only the data transfer fees + licensing fees might make it cost prohibitive...



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