Thin Clients, revisited

Well, it seems the t5720 we’ve been buying from CDW has been discontinued as of April 1st, replaced with the t5730. Here’s the skinny on the suggested replacement SKU from CDW:

AMD Sempron 2100+ (1GHz)
1GB Flash
Radeon X1250/dual-head support
Thinner (by about 3/4″)
Gigabit Ethernet.

Oh, and it’s almost 10% cheaper.

Hope to get my hands on one of these at some point and see how well it handles video.

Arena Check-In stations

Some of you (JP!) have asked me about our Check-In setup, and I promised to blog about it. So here goes.

We’re currently on Shelby V5. Until recently, we were using 1998-vintage gateway PCs running ThinStation (a Linux-based Live CD that gives us an RDP client – 2X is a good option too) that connected back to a dedicated terminal server that had the Shelby V5 application and each room printer defined. We’ve recently started installing new hardware in preparation for the cutover to Arena.

Update, May 2011: Arena check-in rocks.

Thin Clients
We chose the HP t5720, running XP embedded. This machine has 512MB of RAM, an AMD Geode 1500 processor (1GHz), VIA Rhine II Ethernet, and SiS graphics chipset. ATA Flash options are either 512MB or 1GB. We ordered the 512MB option to save about $50, but it turns out that the .NET framework requires more space than was available on the flash drives. Luckily, a 1GB module for these is about $50. We chose XPe because the check-in application has a client-side component that runs on Windows, and won’t work well in a Terminal Server environment. In January, HP released a flash image that includes IE7. Another option for us was the Wyse terminal which we could get through Dell (for some reason they won’t sell us HP gear?!??!), which were priced similarly (the 512MB units are just under $500, the 1GB units just over), but we’ve had good experience with our T5500 CE thin clients that have been in our check-in info booth since we opened our west building in 2004. The T5720 also has a PCI slot option which requires a chassis expansion kit (about $30) if you want to use PCI wireless. We’re also using the 512MB units in our training lab and will be deploying them afterward to a number of volunteer stations around our campus, to replace several aging GX260 machines. Remote management of the thin clients (both the older CE thins as well as the new XPe thins) is with Altiris Deployment Solution. It’s been a bit of a challenge getting HP to support this, as many of their India-based folks are unfamiliar with the process of getting Altiris on the line. Altiris is based in Salt Lake City and is now part of Symantec. Let’s hope their support stays right where it is, because Altiris support is quite good, once you finally get through to them via HP.

Update, May 2011 : We’re replacing the t5720 units with HP’s latest, the t5740e, running Windows Embedded Standard 7, because Arena’s latest code requires .NET 3.5 SP1 to function in the check-in module.  WES7 is a lot easier to deal with than XPe. The new units sport a 1.66GHz Intel Atom N280, 2GB RAM, 4GB flash, Broadcom Gigabit Ethernet and Atheros Wireless. Dell’s FX160 thin client is very similar, but is nearly double the price.

Touch Screens
We went with the Dell E157FPT, a 15-inch SAW touch unit that has both USB and RS-232 interfaces, as well as integrated speakers. Based on the drivers, I have strong reason to believe these are OEMed by Elo. They sure are built well. The main reason for selecting the Dell unit was cost – the nearly identical Elo units were about 50% more (mainly because Dell can’t discount those as heavily as its own branded gear). Dell also has a 17″ version of this monitor for about 25% more. While we’re on the topic of touchscreens, this one is really shiny!

Update, May 2011: Other than a single unit that was DOA, we have had ZERO problems with these units, and they see a LOT of fingers every week. SAW was definitely the right tech for this application, as there are no overlays to wear out and they’re easy to clean. However, Dell seems to have gotten out of the touchscreen business. Even drivers for our screens were hard to come by from Dell when we deployed the WES7 terminals. Fortunately, the ELO driver package works just fine (and is identical except for a different logo.  By all appearances, the E157FPT is a rebranded ELO Intellitouch 1522, which can now be had for around $500, with 17″ and 19″ models only a few dollars more.

Receipt Printers
We’re using our existing fleet of Zebra LP2844 and LP2824 printers that we’ve been using for Shelby V5 Check-In for some time. These are currently located in each classroom and connected over Ethernet via a Trendnet parallel print server (Zebra also has a model of these that has built-in ethernet which I’ve seen at the Wal-Mart pharmacy). We’re still debating whether to keep them in the classrooms or move them to the kiosks. There are a number of arguments in favor of each option, and it will ultimately boil down to what the people in our Children’s Ministry prefer. Some of the staff are going to visit some other Arena-based churches and see how they do it before making a final decision.
The Zebras are solid printers, although we’ve had some issues with drivers. For V5, we ended up using a third-party driver from Seagull Scientific because V5 doesn’t play nice with the OEM Drivers. Strangely enough, Arena check-in (which uses SQL Server Reporting Services to generate a label) doesn’t play nice with the Seagull drivers, but does play nice with the OEM drivers. Go figure. I’m not a huge fan of the TrendNet units, but our options in that space are VERY limited. If we end up moving the printers to the kiosks, they’ll be directly attached via USB.

Update, May 2011: Zebra no longer makes the LP2844, so we’re replacing dead ones with the Zebra GK420d, which has on-board Ethernet. They’re a lot faster too, printing at 6 inches/second, and can be had for around $400.

Bar Code Scanners
Another re-used item from our existing setup. These are Symbol LS1902T scanners (Symbol was acquired by Motorola a while back). The stand has a little magnet under the logo that activates the scanning (or it can be turned on by programming the scanner). Another quirk we discovered between Shelby V5 Check-In and Arena is that the Arena application expects a carriage return following the scanned code, whereas V5 expects a tab (although a CR seems to work too), and all our scanners had been reprogrammed accordingly. We’re using these as keyboard wedges, so the system simply sees them as a PS/2 keyboard. One advantage to using these in keyboard mode (instead of a standalone USB scanner, also supported by Arena) is that I can remove the station keyboards. If I need to get into the maintenance screen, all I have to do is make a Code 39 barcode containing $M, program the scanners to do the full ASCII set, and it will read this barcode as a Ctrl-M. I now have a sticker of 72-point Code 39 on the back of my door access card. From there, it’s all about the touch screen. I can also do codes for Alt-F4 and ESC, which would be useful for V5 Check-In.

Barcode Printer
This unit is a DataCard SP35 that we currently use to print barcode tags for our families. We haven’t determined if it’ll be worth our while to keep issuing tags post-cutover, since the whole point of going to touch screens was to let people check in using their phone number without requiring a physical ID. The existing tags will still work in Arena, so those who have tags can continue to use them if they wish (hence the barcode scanners) In the V5 world, this was a lifesaver – the previous method involved printing a sticker with a barcode and attaching it to a name tag. The life expectancy of these tags was abysmally short (a few weeks) and caused heavy load on our info booth volunteers. This unit lets us print a V5 ID Card onto a set of keychain tags. The life expectancy of these is considerably longer (months/years – they’re wash proof!), they scan better, and they cost us pennies per tag instead of dollars. Even with the printer costing around $1400, this setup paid for itself very quickly. A box of 1000 cards runs a little over $100, and a monochrome ribbon good for 1500 cards runs about $20. Our old nametags used to run us about $2.50 each. In the Arena world, we could use this to print ID cards for our volunteers. We use a similar (older) ID card printer to print our facility access badges. One major downside to this unit is that it REALLY does not like to be connected to its host machine via network print servers. It manages to crash both the host machine and the print server. There is an Ethernet option available, but it’s really spendy.

Update, May 2011: We stopped using barcodes about 6 months after converting to Arena. We’re searching by phone number now.

In a future post, I’ll blog about the layout of the check-in areas and the information booth. Sadly, we don’t have the ubercool furniture JP has.

On the road again…

I’m spending Labor Day weekend at Andrea’s dad’s place in Valparaiso, IN. Much needed grandkid time for him, mini-vacation for us.

We’re such church nerds. On Friday afternoon, we went up to Willow Creek Church for an informal tour of their facility with Mark Stanger, one of their techie guys. Andrea is a theatre nerd (she even has a degree in theatre!) and was duly impressed by what they had at WC. We also got a brief tour afterwards of the IT facilities from Brett (I missed his last name), one of my counterparts there. Technically cool, and professionally informative. It’s nice to see that they face many of the same challenges we do.

Today, we got a chance to go worship at Granger Community Church and break bread (and noodles!) afterwards with Jason Powell and his family. A good time was had by all, and the worship experience was phenomenal. They’re doing some really awesome stuff at GCC that we could definitely learn from. (I found it amusing that today’s message was about work/life balance, right after having had my vacation interrupted last night by our VMWare datastore filling up and causing the database server VM to go on strike due to lack of swap space)

One of the coolest things they have at GCC is the check-in/drop-off process for the kids. If you’re a regular, you check in, get your kids stickered, and then take them to the “launch area”, which is a big tube slide where the kids slide down and pop right into their classroom (unfortunately, Clara wasn’t quite old enough for those classrooms, so we had to cart her down the stairs (where there is a really cool fish tank). Faith went down her slide and popped out the mouth of a giant whale. They have cameras at the top and bottom so you can see them popping out the end and into the classroom. Faith was duly impressed. My immediate thought was that it’s a great way to deal with separation anxiety problems – the kids get a rush of fun, and immediately forget that they’ve just been taken away from mom and dad… and there’s no turning back. I think there’s a metaphor in there for the Christian life too 🙂

The worship experience was, in a word, WOW. They’ve done an incredible job at GCC to make the entire experience immersive and seamless. There’s smooth and logical integration of music, drama, and multimedia that all blend into the message. There’s some really cool technical wizardry going on behind the scenes, but you really don’t have a chance to focus on that, because the experience is so engaging.

On the way back, the kids snoozed, and we passed two things of note…

Valpo has a ski resort. OK, not really a resort, more of a lump in the terrain with a chairlift. To wit:

Where I come from, that would barely be worth bothering with as a sledding hill. Note the snowboarding halfpipe in the second picture.

The other thing that we saw was another Living Water(s) church, that is even smaller than the one Clif‘s wife planted:

And, while I’m posting nerdy pics from my phone, I finally got our rack in something close to its final configuration:

From top to bottom:

  • Sony LIB-81A Tape library (8 slots, 1 AIT-3 drive)
  • Galilee (DR Server) – Dell PE2650
  • Buffalo TeraStation and TeraStation Pro (archival storage)
  • Jericho (ESX Node) – Dell PE2950, 2xIntel 5160, 12GB
  • Jerusalem (ESX Node) – Dell PE2950 2xIntel 5150, 12GB
  • 8-port KVM Console
  • Dell/EMC AX150i iSCSI SAN (1.5TB)
  • UPS for the SAN
  • Dell PowerVault 220 (12x73GB SCSI) (attached to Galilee for DDT backup staging)
  • APC Smart-UPS 2200 (x2)
  • Whitebox security controller PC (in the bottom of the rack)

This makes up almost our entire infrastructure except for telecom and networking.