Economical Entry into the Cloud
POCO-Domäne is modernizing its IT with Web-capable thin clients from IGEL Technology. In doing so, this major interior-furnishings retailer is combining the security and reliability of its mainframe environment with the cost efficiency of the cloud computing era.
Poco-Domäne prides itself on offering its customers the best value for money in its wide selection of furniture, flooring and interior furnishings. Similarly, it also makes sure that it achieves the optimum cost/benefit ratio in setting up its own IT system. The company uses modern thin clients not only to allow its staff to access the IBM System i mainframe environment common to this business sector but also Internet-based applications sourced from external service providers. This type of provision and use of such applications is now known by the general term “cloud computing.”
A Tradition of Centralized Computing
The company history of POCO-Domäne goes back to the year 1972. It was then that Domäne company was founded in Harste, Germany (in the German federal state of Lower Saxony); 17 years later the POCO company was started in Bergkamen, Germany (in the German federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia). Before their merger in 2008, both companies were using the same OS/400-based merchandise management system Ametras MOEVE® and the financial accounting program metras A.line®. Today, some 4,000 users in over 86 stores and the IT backoffice use these two mainframe applications, which run on an IBM System i that first came out itself in 1988 under the name AS/400. The company’s experienced EDP manager, Joachim Leuenberger, has been with the company for 25 years and is convinced of the superiority of this centralized approach to IT. “The IBM System i, which is scalable and virus resistant, has proven reliable to this very day because of its high availability and security.”
The end-user devices at the desktop level in this centralized IT architecture are linked to the mainframe by means of the propriety IBM 5250 protocol. They, too, have been proven to be reliable and secure. Since these devices have no moving parts such as cooling fans or hard drives, they are extremely durable compared to conventional PCs. The oldest devices, 180 IBM terminals, have been used in the former POCO stores for almost 13 years now. In contrast, a typical business-grade PC would have had to have been replaced three times over that same time period.
From Host Terminals to Thin Clients
But even extremely reliable AS/400 terminals eventually become obsolete. For instance, the original devices are no longer being made and are therefore being gradually replaced with thin clients. Thin clients are compactly designed and graphics capable terminals that can be used with Windows® based servers and standard software, making them well suited for a variety of modern applications. Step-by-step, POCO-Domäne has been making this changeover for several years. The most recent modernization phase began in 2004 with the deployment of thin clients from the German manufacturer IGEL Technology. These thin clients not only offer end users access to the existing IBM system but also to the Internet and modern peripheral devices such as USB hand-held scanners and printers. Despite the quantum leap in the technology, the IT architecture at the company continues to be secure because the configuration process for the thin clients is also secure and can only be changed by those IT staff members with administrator rights. Furthermore, the thin clients come standard from the factory with their USB ports disabled; however, they can be specifically enabled on individual devices if needed. Access to and use of the Internet can also be strictly limited.
Cloud Computing by Thin Client
POCO-Domäne’s EDP manager, Joachim Leuenberger, had already known about IGEL Technology, Germany’s market leader in thin clients, from back in the days when IGEL produced software. “In order to be able to use BA80 emulation to access an earlier merchandise management system, we had already been operating older thin clients partially with some IGEL firmware,” he recalls. Over the past six years, POCO-Domäne has replaced half of its total count of 1,500 end-user devices used for IBM host access with IGEL thin clients. The current standard model in use is the Universal Desktop thin client IGEL UD3 LX. Its firmware is based on one of IGEL’s thin client operating systems, IGEL Linux; its features include the successful open-source web browser Mozilla Firefox. The users launch the browser by clicking an icon on the desktop and then use it to access the company Intranet as well as Web pages and applications from partner companies, such as Web-based planning software for handling freight shipments. Before this change to Web-based operation, this program was provisioned from the computer center by means of a remote desktop connection.
Easy Provisioning of Web Services
“The great advantage of having external web services is that we can limit our highly available and therefore relatively expensive resources running on the AS/400 mainframes to essential, mission-critical business applications, allowing us to save on management costs,” Leuenberger explains. In the interest of further standardization, he can imagine even implementing browser-based access to the IBM host system. As another example of a Web service, Leuenberger cites one for printing posters that is currently undergoing pilot testing. Since this new application requires the use of Microsoft® Internet Explorer, POCO-Domäne acquired some additional IGEL thin clients, from the UD3 series, running Microsoft® Windows® Embedded Standard (WES) because their firmware includes the required Microsoft® browser. Leuenberger also feels that the fact that all IGEL thin clients, regardless of whether they are running Linux or WES, can all be uniformly managed and remotely administrated with the IGEL Universal Management Suite (UMS), which comes standard with the units, is a fundamental prerequisite for the new generation of thin clients deployed at POCO-Domäne.
A Management Solution Free of Licensing Costs
In deciding to go with IGEL, the most important of all the selection criteria was the cost-benefit ratio of the overall solution. “In terms of the hardware itself, there is not much difference among the thin client models available on the market,” Leuenberger notes. “The critical difference lies in the software. In IGEL’s case, the decisive factor was the included license-free management software, which has proven to be really easy and intuitive to operate in daily use.” In particular, for large installations of thin clients (with several hundred or even a thousand or so units), the increase in efficiency provided by such a management solution really has a major, positive effect. “With the help of the IGEL Universal Management Suite we can divide the devices into groups and assign group-based profiles. We can then save a lot of time by remotely configuring and managing them based on these previously defined profiles.” As Leuenberger points out, group-based and individual profiles can be easily assembled and assigned to devices or device groups with just a few mouse clicks.
An Infrastructure with a Virtual Management Server
At POCO-Domäne, the central AS/400 platform consists of an IBM iSeries 550 with three processors, 48 GB RAM and 2.5 TB hard drive. Access to the Intranet and Internet is provided through a separate server. The thin clients are managed by means of a virtualized Windows Server™ 2003 and the IGEL management software installed on it. The IGEL management software offers numerous tools that the system administrators can use to display pending firmware updates, schedule their installation and have them automatically carried out in an unattended manner. At this time, POCO-Domäne is not making use of the fundamental option of using IGEL thin clients to access server-based computing (SBC) or virtual desktop infrastructures (VDI). “Despite its great data transmission efficiency, I regret to say that some of our stores still do not have enough bandwidth in order to be able use SBC along with the existing merchandise management system and the office applications,” Leuenberger reports.
Deployment and Results
The IGEL thin clients are used first and foremost in the furniture stores themselves. For instance, they are used as information terminals to provide customers with details on products in the store. They are also used to create sales contracts that are then printed out in triplicate with dot matrix printers. In POCO-Domäne’s warehouse system, the thin clients are used for such tasks as posting the receipt of incoming goods.
According to Joachim Leuenberger, it only takes about a half a day to set up about 20 thin clients in a typical retail store. This time period not only covers creating and assigning the necessary device profiles but also physically installing and connecting the devices. What is more, because IGEL Universal Desktops can not only be remotely managed but can also be shadowed by support staff, who can then view the session display seen by the user concerned, overall support times have been cut significantly. The company is also impressed with IGEL’s support hotline. “The hotline is readily available, and the technicians staffing it are very motivated and knowledgeable,” Leuenberger reports, pleased with the results.
Plans to Expand This Solution
By the end of 2011, Leuenberger intends to have replaced all 180 remaining IBM terminals. The remaining 550 older thin clients, which are not from IGEL, will be gradually replaced as needed. Leuenberger is quite sure that the IGEL thin clients will actually provide long service lives of at least eight years. “These devices have really proven themselves in actual use,” he adds, summing up the positive results so far. “Their low acquisition costs and their efficient device management solution fit right in with our standards as a discount retailer, which is to always offer, and get, the best value for the money.”