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FRAIKIN Group Develops a Flexible Thin-Client Environment

FRAIKIN Group
Jean-Luc Loubet FRAIKIN Group’s CIO - Photo by Arnaud Fevrier

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Customer: FRAIKIN Group
Headquarters: Colombes, France
Business: Fleet-vehicle provider
Challenge: Lowering client-side costs while also improving user services
Solution: Embracing Google hardware and cloud software to streamline its front-end computing environment, while also maintaining 3270 TE access to IBM Z
Hardware: An IBM-owned and hosted IBM Z server; Google Chrome devices
Software: SysperTec Group’s Virtel Web Access module of its Virtual Web Suite for IBM Z; a host of cloud-based Google and other SaaS applications

Remote offices offer a number of benefits, including more immediate customer contact, an understanding of local needs and a sales force that’s always ready to jump on new opportunities. They also often have direct communications channels back to the home office and its back-room systems, such as IBM Z* mainframes.

But these remote locations can also have their downsides, especially when an organization has many of them. For example, updating necessary software can be a chore—especially if it can’t be done from the central office. Additionally, the total cost of acquisition and total cost of ownership (TCO) for fully outfitted desktop PCs and the software that runs on them can be onerous.

That’s in large part why FRAIKIN Group, a rental-fleet company headquartered in Columbes, France, decided to jettison most of its PCs in favor of a thin-client computing environment that, thanks to SysperTec Group and its Virtel Web Access (VWA) tool, supports web-based 3270 terminal emulation (TE). Most of this infrastructure revolves around Google hardware products, such as the Chromebase and Chromebook, along with software and services including the Chrome OS and browser, Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Drive, Google Maps and even YouTube.

“We wanted to be able to offer better services and improved user experiences without a big increase in TCO,” remarks Jean-Luc Loubet, FRAIKIN Group’s CIO. “This is why we moved to Chrome OS technology, which will help us avoid extra costs if we were to continue updating Microsoft technology or adopting Apple technology. And this doesn’t even include software licensing fees, which can add up very quickly.”

Only Part of the Story

FRAIKIN Group provides commercial vehicle fleet services to private and public sectors in 13 European countries, as well as Russia and Saudi Arabia. In keeping with its motto—“You drive, we care”—it offers a range of fleet-management contract solutions, going well beyond simply leasing vehicles to interested parties. These contract solutions include, but are not limited to, servicing, maintenance and repair, vehicle safety inspections and preventative maintenance checks, road fund licensing/administration, and breakdown coverage. 

“We make sure that all the trucks we deliver come with all the services you need to help run your business. In other words, we take care of the trucks for you. We make sure you receive them on time. We provide the insurance. We deliver pretty much everything so you don’t have to be bothered with mundane vehicle needs,” Loubet says.

Supporting FRAIKIN Group’s 7,000 or so customers are 180 branch offices and approximately 2,800 employees. Because of the breadth of its reach, those offices and employees are backed up by robust computing resources. At the core of these computing resources lies an IBM z13*, which is owned and hosted by IBM. But that’s only part of the story.

“We have to provide all of the IT tools needed to execute the business across our many branches,” Loubet notes. “And all of it has to be easy for our centralized IT organization to manage from our headquarters to provide our clients with the best delivery of our many services.”

Bloated Workstations

Prior to its current thin-client environment, the company had been using a hybrid thin-client model of sorts. This model included Windows* PCs and HP Neoware systems, along with a Citrix Receiver-based cloud environment that allowed users to access its remotely clustered Microsoft Office infrastructure.

This setup did have its benefits, including simpler workstation support and reduced workstation TCO. But it also had its issues, such as no audio/visual support on the workstations and no direct internet access.

“Users couldn’t view video, including video conferencing. There were also some Internet of Things (IoT) objects in the branches they couldn’t connect to because they didn’t have direct internet connections, aside from Citrix intranet support. All they had were workstations primarily being used to communicate with the mainframe,” Loubet recalls.

Advanced Solutions

Because of these issues, FRAIKIN Group decided in 2016 to further refine its thin-client environment by ditching its mainframe-workstation environment altogether. As part of this, it adopted Google Chromebook and Chromebase devices—in keeping with its larger enterprise-wide virtual device infrastructure initiative—and replaced its 1,500 or so Windows and Neoware workstations that had been used to access mainframe applications.

“We progressed from very passive thin clients to Chrome ware. As a result, users have more advanced solutions that will not only provide them with access to the mainframe, but also the solutions available on the internet via a web browser. That can be video, chat, IoT resources or Google applications,” Loubet says.

When the Chrome-based hardware was put into place, it included the Chrome OS and browser. Upon initial connection to FRAIKIN Group’s cloud environment, the Google Remote Desktop, Citrix Receiver applets and the Salesforce CRM browser extension were installed, along with toolbar links to cloud apps such as Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Translate and Google Maps.

The deployed Google devices have different user bases. The Chromebook is for mobile staff, Android phones for sales staff, the Chromebase for office staff and the Chromebox for meeting conference-room participants.

The Chrome-specific devices, which are centrally managed by the Chrome Device Manager, receive automatic updates and antivirus protection. With the now-accessible internet, they can also connect to cloud applications such as G Suite and other business applications available in Software as a Service, including Salesforce or bespoke applications implemented by FRAIKIN Group IT teams.

More Flexibility

Another key aspect of this thin-client effort involved 3270 TE client applets. While FRAIKIN Group remained dedicated to its thin-client virtual device infrastructure vision, the company still wanted users to have access to mainframe screens. Traditional client-based Java* client applets didn’t work with the Chrome browser—the lynchpin of its entire modernization program. Not having Chrome-friendly 3270 TE could’ve potentially scuttled the project.

After speaking with a business partner, however, FRAIKIN Group IT discovered the SysperTec Group and the VWA module of its Virtual Web Suite for IBM Z. With VWA, which runs directly on the mainframe, users can access 3270 applications such as TSO and CICS* in 3270 TE mode in their browser, which makes it appear that mainframe applications are running in the cloud alongside G Suite. In fact, a direct Java-free HTTPS connection exists between the mainframe and the thin clients.

“We wanted to improve the services we provide to our employees while also finding a solution that would enable us to avoid big IT costs from other solutions, like Windows or Office.”
—Jean-Luc Loubet, FRAIKIN Group’s CIO

This has provided more flexibility when presenting mainframe applications. As Loubet explains, “Some parts of an application have the traditional mainframe user interface, but there are also newer components that are based on web-application design and a GUI. But users don’t care. If they need to access legacy applications in Chrome, they can. And if they need to interact with modernized mainframe applications in Chrome, they can do that too.”

If external users need access to the same mainframe resources, they can use whatever device or browser they choose. FRAIKIN Group, however, wanted to standardize its internal resources to cut hardware costs, reduce administrative overhead and establish direct access to the internet for its widely dispersed branch offices.

“The reason why we opened internet connections from each branch was to allow them to use advanced cloud applications,” explains Loubet. “It would have been very expensive to continue using Microsoft technology—like the OS and the Office suite—because we would have had to purchase more than 1,000 additional Microsoft licenses just to upgrade.”

Improved Services

There’s more to this story than money savings, though. The company and its branch offices can now communicate via video conferencing along with shared video tutorials and training. In addition, the company improved application mobility and flexibility, and everyone anywhere—with the proper permissions, of course—can safely use the company’s applications, even if they’re not using a Chrome browser.

And, thanks to SysperTec’s VWA, this includes access to FRAIKIN’S traditional green-screen applications, which can be served up as either web pages or web services. Because VWA resides on the mainframe host, the client doesn’t need to be modified.

“We wanted to improve the services we provide to our employees while also finding a solution that would enable us to avoid big IT costs from other solutions, like Windows or Office,” Loubet remarks. “This is key because we’re always growing and expanding our reach with additional employees and branch offices. This is why we began looking for a modern thin-client solution that also supported 3270 TE.”

Jim Utsler, IBM Systems Magazine senior writer, has been covering the technology field for more than a decade. Jim can be reached at jjutsler@provide.net.


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