A Flexible and Responsive Book Service
For the Swiss bookseller Thalia Bücher AG providing prompt, excellent customer service in its retail stores was a strategic goal made possible by flexible and efficient IT reliably running in the background. Thanks to thin client computing, store employees can quickly log on and log off with iButtons, allowing greater mobility and making it easier for them to better serve customers.
Thin Client Computing
With a total of 23 stores and 650 employees throughout most of Switzerland, the Swiss book dealer Thalia Bücher AG is the market leader in the country. The book dealer has its own company headquarters in Basel, Switzerland, while the computer center is in Hagen, Germany – home of the parent company Douglas Holding. It is here, in this computer center, that not only the associated Internet shops thalia.ch, meissner.ch, stauffacher.ch and zap.ch are hosted, but also where enterprise applications are provided to locations in Switzerland. Server-based computing architecture based on Citrix® was introduced in 2006; the first thin clients followed shortly thereafter. The first clients deployed, which came from a competitor, ran the Microsoft® Windows® XP Embedded operating system. However, when it came to managing them, it soon became clear that they were not going to be a long-term solution. “There were certain settings on those thin clients, such as the monitor resolution, that could only be made locally, which meant a lot of time and effort was spent in managing the units,” recalls Wolfgang Sichler, IT Manager for Thalia Bücher AG, adding that “we eliminated this deficiency in October 2007 by switching over to units from the German company IGEL Technology.”
IGEL’s Management Software Proves Its Worth
Thalia was made aware of IGEL thin clients by Steffen Informatik, a major Swiss IT systems consultant and supplier. The decisive factor in the final decision to go with products from IGEL, the leading thin client provider in Germany, was the IGEL Universal Management Suite (UMS), a powerful software solution for locally and remotely managing thin clients that comes standard with IGEL units. The UMS allows IGEL thin clients and all their settings to be easily and conveniently managed remotely based on group profiles. By the end of 2008, Thalia had equipped all of its new stores with a total of 100 Linux-based IGEL thin clients. According to IT Manager Sichler, they have proven to be very stable in daily operation. Back then, there were around 250 thin client workstations, five standalone PCs for special uses such as image editing as well as 30 notebooks for mobile use. In addition to their use in the back office, the thin clients were primarily used as information terminals in the bookstores themselves.
Session and Printer Roaming with IGEL and iButton
Since 2009, the thin client based information terminals have been fitted with a modern and very user-friendly authentication solution. What brought this about was the roll-out of an SAP-based merchandise management system. As part of this process, all information terminals in the bookstores were to be replaced by IGEL thin clients, which require users to log on individually. “Our top management wanted a method in place to clearly identify the personnel using the system. We met this need by using Active Directory and iButtons,” Sichler explains. “Now, every employee has a small metal canister containing a chip with a uniquely assigned code number. An iButton looks like a button cell and it can be attached to key rings and easily taken along by employees as they work.” This identification system, much used in the food service industry, is very practical and economical. To log on to an information terminal, an employee simply presses the iButton into the terminal socket station fitted with a retaining clip. To log off the terminal, the employee simply releases and removes the iButton. When used with thin clients, this authentication process saves immense amounts of time because with the removal of the iButton, the Citrix® session with the server is not terminated but only interrupted, continuing to run in the background. If the iButton is inserted at another workstation, a reconnect process – lasting only seconds – takes place. At the same time, the reconnected work session is also automatically assigned to the default printer for that particular workstation.
IGEL Universal Desktops
To meet the requirements of the iButton solution on a Windows-based client, Thalia has been using IGEL thin clients running the Microsoft® Windows® Embedded Standard operating system since 2009. The iButton contact station is connected by USB to the new IGEL Universal Desktops (UD3 series). For the local thin client image, Thalia had special software developed that runs directly on each thin client. Wolfgang Sichler explains how it all works: “After being switched on, the IGEL UD3 starts in Windows® mode with a pseudo user. The request for the information from the iButton contact station runs in the background. Once contact with an iButton is established, the Citrix Program Neighborhood Agent is started and reports the user to the Citrix server over in Hagen.” The iButton sessions are run on a redundantly set up web server. The IGEL Universal Desktop solution with the iButton function benefits Thalia AG in several ways: bookstore employees enjoy greater operating convenience, the company benefits from greater productivity and customers greater flexibility. “Now, our employees can immediately go with customers to other store departments and continue work with their already established work sessions,” Sichler notes, explaining the advantages.
A key prerequisite for launching the iButton solution is the Citrix® Program Neighborhood Agent, which is integrated in the firmware supplied with the IGEL Universal Desktops. Beyond this, the thin clients offer a wide range of additional software tools and protocol clients, such as for accessing virtual desktops. To promote faster firmware updates, Thalia now uses a stripped down Embedded Standard operating system that its IT staff internally adapted so that it uses less than half of the available flash memory. These customized images, including the iButton solution and default printer assignments, are loaded on the thin clients in advance. A process that only takes a few minutes for each unit. Then the thin clients are shipped out to their intended locations and connected to their respective workstations. “So far, the Universal Desktops have proven to be very reliable units,” Sichler reports. “But in the unlikely case of a hardware failure, each location has a reserve unit ready and waiting to plug the gap. If it ever comes to this, we have the users there to switch out the unit themselves. After that, we can configure it remotely over the network.”
Continuous Expansion through Soft Migration
The oldest of the thin clients at Thalia have been in service for about five years and are being gradually replaced in an ongoing program of soft migration by the IT department. For each new installation the switchover period is short. In each case, it depends on the office furniture in which the end unit is installed. Even so, at a typical bookstore with 10 information stations the entire roll-out takes only 30 minutes. So far, 150 new IGEL UD3 ES thin clients have been installed along with 120 older models of the IGEL XP Smart series. To facilitate expansion of the iButton authentication solution, the Linux-based thin clients are being replaced step-by-step with models running Windows® Embedded Standard. The Linux units are then being deployed at other workstations where they can still be used. By April 2010, all Swiss locations are to be equipped with the new thin clients featuring the iButton solution. Today, almost all Thalia employees use an IGEL thin client. Even part-time and full-time employees in the adjoining cafés are using them to time stamp their log-ins and -outs.
High Reliability, Low Overhead
When it comes to ongoing IT costs, thin client computing has proven its worth to the bottom line. Since the IT team located in Basel and Bern only has four total members, the support costs compared to the first thin client solution have dropped significantly. “We used to have to take replacement units to stores by train or by car in trips often taking up to one-and-a-half hours,” Sichler recalls, adding that he estimates that administration and support times have now been cut by 20%. He well remembers that “the devices from the first provider often caused downtime making urgent replacements necessary. Today, things are a lot different, however. As soon as an IGEL unit has been set up and connected, it’s ready to roll. That’s something we can depend on.”