Thin clients fatten construction profits

It may have begun in 1999 as a low-key, husband-and-wife effort, but Lamont Constructions has been growing so fast that the Townsville-based company now finds itself staring down $40 million turnover in the current financial year, up from $20 million last year.

Branch offices in Cairns and Ayr have rapidly extended the company's reach, with 21 employees now spread across Queensland, and the award-winning builders enjoying the kind of growth opportunities to make any director proud.

To support this growth, however, founders Wayne and Therese Lamont have also had to grow up quickly when it comes to their IT infrastructure.

Having started off with a single PC in a spare bedroom, their 'network' soon grew to include two PCs and things just got more complicated from there.

The company recently renovated the stand-alone office it moved into several years ago, adding a second floor and a host of potential workspaces with scores of conventional data ports.

Recognizing all the hallmark signs of a network that could quickly grow out of control, the Lamonts have worked with local integrator PromoNet to keep their costs low and scalability high. Initially, this resulted in a file-and-print-based infrastructure built entirely around Sun Solaris servers running the BizPrac Toolbox administrative application, and accessed by employees using conventional Windows desktops.

The choice of Unix for a relatively small company may be unusual, but it has proved more than manageable.

"We've just found that Unix is more robust and leaves out all the prettiness to be working like a proper workhorse," says Therese Lamont, who serves as the company's managing director of administration. "The main guts of it isn't getting filled up with all of that extra stuff."

The moment of truth came for Lamont, however, when along with the move into the expanded office it became clear that a new, comprehensive and integrated business system was a necessity if the company was going to continue its growth. That system was Databuild, a specialized construction industry estimating, project management and accounting package that had already been informally used for five years by the company's estimating department.

Databuild, however, only runs in a Windows Server 2003 environment - a fact that forced the company to consider a plan to introduce Windows to its server room for the first time. "It was a fairly big expense that we didn't know we were going to have," Lamont recalls. "It was a bit of a shock."

Best of both worlds

The other option, however, was to completely rework the company's estimating procedures, which were already well entwined with the Databuild application.

This was a complicated, expensive, and immensely undesirable option.

Facing the inevitable introduction of Windows, Lamont worked with PromoNet to design a long-term server strategy that would keep its costs as low as possible. They soon came to consider the merits of using Sun Microsystems' Sun Ray 1g thin clients on employee desktops which would let them access both the existing Solaris file-and-print services and the Windows-based Databuild server.

"We didn't want to say 'just give us the cheapest thing to do for now'," says Lamont. "We were interested in doing quality things to sustain growth that we were suspecting would happen. We were looking down the track considering how many terminals we were going to have to have, with all these people administering [Windows desktops]."

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