Camping Out With Thin Clients

An RV accessory supplier packs only the necessities, compliments of NCD.

Anybody who regularly has the stars for a ceiling and the ground for a floor knows that, when camping, its wise to bring the necessities and not much more. Camping World—the worlds largest retailer of recreational-vehicle accessories—followed that advice when the $350 million, 30-store retailer and mail-order company upgraded its IT infrastructure.

Camping Worlds IT managers could have bought a truckload of PCs to replace its aging dumb terminals and PCs, but they realized that most workers have no need for all the bells and whistles. So they opted for a thin-client system that offers a more useful but less-complicated and error-prone solution.

Camping World weighed the options for an upgrade and decided a modern, thin-client system made the most sense. It settled upon Network Computing Devices (NCD) equipment recommended and supplied by S.B. Stone & Company of Cleveland, an NCD reseller.

NCD Fits the Bill "We felt that Camping World needed a solution based on cost-effective, dynamic equipment and NCD fit the bill," says Rich Figer, VP of sales at S.B. Stone. "We added NCDs array of software back-end tools to complete the solution for seamless use."

"Our initial goal was basically just at the mail-order call center in Bowling Green," recalls Matthew Keyser, the technical team leader of Camping Worlds IT department. "But we had great success [there], so after we implemented our wide area network, we put thin clients in our retail stores."

Most of the call center employees were working with terminals that lacked versatility. Keyser described them as "classic, dumb terminals on an old mainframe." The inbound-order terminals offered only a "character-based, old, green-screen type of application." At the retail stores, sales staff had no computerized link to headquarters, so there was "no visibility to the inventory," says Keyser. "They had only the telephone," he explains. "Theyd call merchandising and ask, Do you have any of these?"

Figer says NCD was the only company that offered not only the thin-client hardware but also the software, called ThinPath Manager, to manage the devices.

He says the so-called "Thinfrastructure" solution includes features similar to those provided by Citrix, but does so at less of an expense. These features include the ability to work with any device, load balancing, port sharing and more.

Setting Up Camp While S.B. Stone helped Camping World choose which NCD equipment it would purchase and offered some post-sales support, most of the installation was handled by Camping Worlds 22-member IT department.

"They had a pretty good plan for what they wanted to do and we just helped reassure them with the technology, what to use and things like that," says Figer, noting that Camping World was his companys largest client.

Camping World chose NCDs ThinStar 200 devices for the stores and corporate offices and the ThinStar 300 and 400 units for other places, including its training classrooms and—something new to the company—its RV dealerships.

The retail stores are connected to the Camping World headquarters by a wide-area network, a project in which S.B. Stone is also involved. The WAN uses a 128,000-byte-per-second connection provided by AT&T that allows the retail stores thin-client terminals to directly connect with the Camping World database for inventory lookups.

"Its basically a private Internet," says Keyser. "You use the public Internet, but we set up permanent virtual circuits." He says the WAN costs Camping World a lot less than its former leased-line setup cost, but the real benefit of the network is its ability to allow remote management. That, combined with the simplicity of the thin-client units (which contain no data storage devices that could break) is proving to be the big money saver for the company.

Long-Term Savings Keyser says the company has spent about $100,000 so far on the thin-client deployment, installing about 90 units in the retail stores (about three per store), and about 100 in the mail-order center. He estimates that installing a PC-based network probably would have cost about the same.

"Originally, we thought thin client was going to be a cost savings on the hardware, but as PCs have dropped in price, that became less of a benefit," says Keyser. "It still is a benefit, to some extent, but what you dont spend on PCs you have to spend on servers. The main benefit comes from being able to control the users, give them what they need and take away from them what they dont need … The cost savings you get is mainly from a systems-administration perspective. The calls to the help desk have been reduced and the ability to upgrade and maintain applications is much easier."

Although some Camping World workers need—and still have—PCs, the new setup replaced many of the "low-level Pentium" desktops with NCD terminals. There was a bit of griping by the PC users, but that was balanced by the thankfulness of others who now had functions never before available, including access to the company intranet, online inventory reports and limited Internet browsing ability.

"Basically the PC brought so much power to the users, they had a great deal of power to completely trash the machine," says Keyser. "Its amazing how much time our help desk was having to spend on people we gave PCs versus people we gave thin clients …Now we spend much less time going to a PC where somebody installed something they shouldnt have. If an NCD stops functioning or somethings wrong, you basically just restart them. The on/off switch is about all theyve got."

Figer says it usually costs a company $3,000 to $11,000 per year to maintain a PC while the range for thin-client maintenance is $200 to $1,000 yearly. Additionally, thin clients last at least nine years while PCs get outdated in five years or less, he says.

No Windows, But Plenty of Room The Camping World thin-client installation was relatively trouble free, according to Keyser. He acknowledges the technicians had to pay particularly close attention to how applications were installed.

"When youre in a terminal-server environment, sometimes getting an application to work just right takes some time," says Keyser, noting some stumbles occurred in running the wizards for installing applications. While the NCD equipment is capable of handling Windows 2000, Camping World "didnt feel at the time, and still doesnt, that the added functionality was worth the cost," says Keyser. "We have a long history of not being on the bleeding edge."

Nevertheless, the next phase of the job will entail finally putting the Wang mainframe out to pasture. The Wang is still used for mail-order applications, but Camping World hopes to move, this autumn, to an IBM AS400.