SunRays shine at technology institute

Talk of the once-hyped Java-based network appliance has gone quiet of late but Manukau Institute of Technology (MIT) has big plans for Sun Microsystems Inc.' thinnest client device -- the SunRay.

Normally the video cassette-sized SunRays work in Sun's proprietary Solaris Unix environment but South Auckland-based MIT is taking a novel approach -- it is using SunRays to access Microsoft Corp. applications through Citrix Systems Inc.'s MetaFrame running on Windows NT hosted on MIT's servers. The SunRay, which measures 280mm x 306mm x 102mm, incorporates a MicroSPARC chip, 8M bytes of RAM and a smart card reader, but no operating system.

Thin clients, ranging from 486-based PCs through to Pentium IIIs, Unix workstations, SunRays and Apple Macintoshes, sit on more than half of MIT's desks. However, the plan is to steadily increase the number of SunRays and decrease the number of PCs, according to MIT technical manager Chris Stott. He says the SunRays emit less heat and noise and take up a smaller amount of room on the desktop.

So far the institute has 250 SunRays running in "kiosk mode" -- when a person logs on, it makes a query against the LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol) directory server for their authorization details.

About 30 staff are also using smart cards to access their applications. Stott says the institute is considering retrofitting magnetic stripes to the smart cards and turning them into general-purpose student and staff ID cards. He envisages that students could use the cards not only for computer access but to charge goods and services such as cafeteria or bookstore purchases against their student accounts.

MIT is also piloting running Sun Solaris through Citrix MetaFrame, a new feature of MetaFrame that Citrix released last year.

The institute originally implemented Citrix MetaFrame, with systems integrator Computerland, to integrate its NetWare 3.11 and Unix environments while providing access to business applications.

MIT's Citrix project manager, James Reece, says MIT already had a thin-client computing model, but the demands of 32-bit applications such as Office 2000 and Netscape Communicator proved too much for its existing network operating system.

"We were under pressure to deliver new-generation applications to both administration and teaching staff as well as to students, but faced the expense of having to upgrade all our client hardware or substantially enhance our back-end systems to do this," he says.

"We believe the major industry players like Microsoft and Sun are heading back towards centralized service management, and decided if we could implement a centralized engine and common directory service, this would offer enormous long-term benefits such as lower costs and better management capabilities.

"Citrix offered a cost-effective way of overcoming some of the scalability problems inherent in our networked environment, enabling us to not only provide the applications people were looking for, but also to use NT 4.0 to integrate core Unix systems like our Student Management System (SMS) with other previously disparate systems."

He says the ability to share information via the LDAP access protocol means MIT can use SMS to create a central domain for log-ins and accounts, thus improving management control and application integration.

MIT is also trialling Citrix Nfuse, which lets end users work with a Web browser to see their authorized applications on a Web page.

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