Victorian Electoral Commission looks to thin clients to slash costs

The Victorian Electoral Commission (VEC) slashed IT costs by 50 percent by using thin client technology at its Early Voting Centres (EVC).

VEC infrastructure leader, Shripad Joshi, said thin computing from Wyse Technology has been installed because previous solutions used during state elections were too costly and complex.

"With such a short period of time allowed for early voting centres to be set up prior to the election we just could not afford the time or complexity in providing an alternative solution such as personal computers (PCs)," Joshi said.

"We had to basically wheel-in and be online very quickly with no time available for solving PC issues.

"We also saved enormous amounts of money by using our own office staff to simply plug in the thin clients rather than use third party contractors as we have done in the past."

Today, Australian politicians have become much more tech-savvy utilising the Internet as much as possible even praising Google Australia for launching a new election Web page and tools dedicated to keeping the nation informed.

The election page includes a new variation of Google maps called maplets, through which users can view electorate boundaries, see which parties hold each seat and the margin they hold them by, electorate profiles and information about each member, as well as links to videos and news relating to each electorate.

In a video posted on the Liberal Party 07 page, Prime Minister John Howard said "its undeniable that the Internet is a powerful medium for people to communicate and be informed."

Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd labelled social networking site YouTube the new tool of democracy.

With the federal election announced yesterday and set for November 24, 2007, there is likely to be plenty of online activity by the major political parties in coming weeks.

But there are always plenty of cyber challenges such as security. VEC's Joshi said thin computing solves the security problem.

With no disk in the Wyse terminal, Joshi said security isn't an issue and VEC could guarantee availability, which wasn't possible with notebooks in the past.

During the 2006 state election, Joshi said VEC combined thin clients with ADSL support from Telstra.

"It is our intention going forward to use thin client terminals in future state and local government elections. We are looking at new technology like streaming and desktop virtualisation and also decentralised architecture that will enable the VEC to gain access from regional and satellite offices," Joshi said.

The VEC has traditionally established centres (EVCs) around the state for voters who cannot attend a voting booth on election day.

In 2006, the election was held on November 25 and there were 36 voting centres spread across the state of Victoria.

They are operational for about four weeks leading up to the election.

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The VEC also established over 54 Elections Offices (EO) around the state for approximately three months to handle nominations, information to the public and enrolment queries prior to the big day. Electronic Voting was also trialled at six E-centres in and around Melbourne.

"The problem for VEC in running the remote office locations, in particular the EVC's has been the complexity and cost of renting PCs for such short periods," Joshi said.

"We have to make sure all PCs are standardised which is impossible with rented gear."

For example, in preparation for state election 2002, Joshi said the commission rented more than 400 notebooks in each centre or EVC, where a voter was marked off teh roll and the notebook was taken back to head office to extract and transfer updates to the central database.

"It was a complex operation to setup 400 identical laptops and manage information extraction to update the central database. It also opened the possibility of fraudulent multiple voting," Joshi added.

"In 2005 we trialled Citrix software using council provided desktops with limited bandwidth to facilitate the nomination process from council premises.

"This enabled us to run standard applications at each site directly connected to our central servers. However, it soon became apparent that using infrastructure provided by others was a very expensive and unmanageable proposition."

The trial with Citrix showed that thin client technology was definitely the way to go for the VEC; however the use of notebooks or third party infrastructure was not.

"Firstly using only notebooks at the early voting centres was not feasible either as a stand alone solution or connected to the head office using Citrix," he said.

"In 2002, at a stand alone EVC using a notebook we would mark the voter off the roll at the booth and then back at head office we would physically merge databases and recheck the voter against the master roll.

"This was not necessary when using Citrix as we could use one step to mark off and check back with the master database, so marking that person off at all voting stations in real time, eliminating potential administrative overhead and voting fraud."

Joshi said no two notebooks are the same and renting 400 at a time was expensive.

Different disk, motherboards and software configurations made a Standard Operating Environment (SOE) impossible.

"Even if we had purchased the notebooks at one time, it would not have taken long for them to be out of synch," he added.

Soon after the Wyse trial, VEC ordered 100 units for the November 2006 state election.

"The VEC decided to purchase the Wyse thin client terminals outright rather than rent as they wanted a standard that could be used in all future state and local government elections. They also found that the outright purchase was in the long run, more cost effective than renting notebooks due to the savings in running costs," Joshi said.

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"Any Wyse unit could be plugged in to any office, connect to the server, upload and be ready to go in seconds.

"Since all settings and setup are saved on the server, and using Wyse Thin OS on the terminal, deployment is just so easy. Since all programs and setups reside on the server it is just a matter of plug and play."

The VEC use Citrix ICA to connect the terminals back to head office Citrix infrastructure, which published the Election Management application connecting to a SQL database running on Windows Server. All offices including the 36 Early Voting Centres and the trial six electronic voting stations used the Wyse thin client terminals for the 2006 election.

The VEC contracted with Telstra Data Services to provide temporary ADSL based secure private IPWAN connectivity from the Early Voting Centres to the head office.

Telstra helped set up 36 offices in just 10 days.

"Previously we had used an expensive ISDN network and were thrilled at the cost saving IPWAN gave us. We worked with their planning team for four months prior to the implementation of ADSL and that really helped," Joshi said.


Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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