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Thursday, December 21, 2006

Terminate the terminal server

A new appeal popped up that reminded me of a shortcoming in the Eligible Services List that has had me grinding my teeth for years: terminal servers.

The rules around server eligibility are terrible, anyway. You buy a server to be a Domain Controller in your Microsoft network. Sure, you toss DHCP on there, because some server has to do it. Now the server is spending 90% of its time authenticating users, handing out Group Policies, and all the other overhead that goes with being a DC. Heck, make it the Global Catalog server, too. Now it's going to spend a miniscule amount of time doing DHCP, but hey, the server is 100% eligible. But move DHCP to some other server, and now it's totally ineligible. Ugly.

The really bad part about the server rules is that over the course of their useful lives, servers get repurposed. OK, if you have a server that's doing only DHCP, you can stick that thing in a corner and it will be able to do that job until the motherboard cracks from age or the hard drive seizes up. But an email server is different. Email is a resource hog, so you want a mighty machine doing that. Three years later, it's no longer mighty, so it's time to buy a new email server, and put the old one out to pasture as a file server or backup DC or something. But no, the E-Rate rules say that you have to turn off that perfectly useful server, put it in a corner and not use it for a dozen years or so, at which point it has no value and the district can dump it. (Because state laws don't allow districts to give away useful equipment, and E-Rate rules don't allow districts to sell surplus equipment.)

The solution? Set a useful life of 3 years for a server. The 2-in-5 rule basically says that you can replace your entire infrastructure every 3 years. So expand that rule a bit to say that you can only buy an email server (or servers, if your network is large enough) every 3 years. One Web server every 3 years. One infrastructure (DHCP/DNS) server every 3 years. And at the end of 3 years, the server can be sold, repurposed, whatever.

But back to terminal servers. I still don't understand the eligibility of terminal servers. They've been eligible for years, but for what use? Apparently the only allowable use is to provide a Web browser for thin clients. (I suppose providing an email client would be OK, too.) It's not clear what the eligibility is if the terminal server is providing a Web browser and other applications.

The appeal is from a company that installed a terminal server that provided access to applications. I never thought such a server would be eligible, but the Eligible Services List at the time sure made it look like it was. The current ESL is better, but I'd still like to see it made more specific.

Even better, dump terminal servers off the list. If I can't get E-Rate funding for the cost of a Web browser if it's installed on a client machine (yes, there are browsers that cost money), why can I get money for a server to provide that software to clients? Terminal servers do not facilitate the distribution of data. Thin clients that want to access the Internet send packets to the switches and routers directly. The only thing that that terminal server provides is end-user software.

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