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Along the Frictionless Plane: The Case of ThinScale

Innovation, security and end-user experience are at the core of our ethos and act as touchstones throughout the development process resulting in solutions that are lightweight, scalable and solve real-world problems faced by virtualization experts

and IT teams every day.

- ThinScale website

Recently I was reading a piece in The New Yorker magazine about the social tumult caused by the bubonic plague of the Middle Ages (the “Black Death”), and how that tragic, cascading event paradoxically helped lead to the Italian Renaissance. At one point the article notes that the Renaissance eventually spawned one of the most influential thinkers in history in the form of Galileo Galilei – the man who established the scientific method. I’ve long been fascinated by Galileo’s concept of the frictionless plane (predictions of an object moving down an inclined plane in a frictionless environment); it was just one of many of Galileo’s innovations in physics and engineering.

Today, as we deal with a modern plague called Covid19, the realm of IT just may be experiencing its own kind of Renaissance, an efflorescence of new ways of working, progress for today’s increasingly mobile and homeshored workforce along a new kind of frictionless plane. While the concept of “user centric IT” has been around for years, it seems to be gaining renewed momentum under our current circumstances. As author Jacob Morgan put it:

Organizations are now looking at ways to focus on the individual employees by allowing them to use the technologies they want, need and are familiar with based on the technologies they use in their personal lives. User-centric IT will truly allow employees to work anytime, anywhere and on any device.

I was thinking about all this in light of a recent briefing from a fast growing technology company called ThinScale. Founded in 2013 and based in the Media Cube on the IADT campus in Dublin, Ireland, ThinScale offers solution-driven products that aim to help enterprises optimize their virtualized environments and increase productivity while improving security. Its focus is on software-defined thin clients, desktop virtualization, and server-based computing, working to transform the way endpoints are delivered and managed. The objective is to help IT deliver a modern digital workplace and a seamless (ie, frictionless) user experience.

The company has an international focus across 22 countries with main markets in the Netherlands, the UK, and the United States. It also was featured on a recent April, 2020, CX Files podcast.

Disrupting the Market

Back in 2013, ThinScale sought to disrupt the thin client market with ThinKiosk, the first Windows based PC to thin client converter. A thin client is a lightweight computer that has been optimized for establishing a remote connection with a server-based computing environment (where most applications, data, and memory are stored). In other words, it runs from resources stored on a central server instead of a localized hard drive.

In effect, ThinKiosk turns an existing Windows PC into a secure, centrally managed Windows-based thin client. In so doing, it reduces hardware and management costs while delivering a single pane of glass, allowing IT teams to manage the entire estate of thin client devices and confirm they are up to date, secure, and compliant. It also delivers a unified end-user experience on all converted endpoints. It is compatible with virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) solutions from Citrix, Amazon, Microsoft, and VMWare, sitting within those provider solutions rather than replacing them (these companies deliver business applications while ThinScale focuses on securing the endpoints of the devices that access such applications).

A BYOD World: Enter Secure Remote Worker (SRW)

In today’s environment, business continuity planning (BCP) must include the possibility of future waves of Covid19. Yet even before Covid hit, it was clear to ThinScale that business process outsourcers (BPOs) in particular needed an easy, effective solution for their growing pool of home-based agents operating within a “Bring Your Own Device” (BYOD) model. Unsecured personal devices accessing resources through a similarly unsecure connection to corporate resources (local, virtual, and remote applications and desktops) risked data leakage while offering almost no IT control and no real way to force through updates. Moreover, with distributed hardware-based solutions, companies had to ship products to their remote employees, which didn’t work well as an economic model. BPOs were also experiencing high failure rates in supporting external hardware. With a USB delivered operating system (OS), the required stick was often difficult to obtain, and was always prone to not functioning properly.

ThinScale responded to these challenges by developing a unique Validation Tool. Secure Remote Worker (SRW) is a software-defined thin client specifically designed to help enable the BYOD model for Work-at-Home (WAH) programs. The process is straightforward. The lightweight SRW app installs on an agent’s personal device. The Validation Tool then assesses that personal device to check if it meets security requirements. Once the device passes the necessary checks, the agent uses a Single Click Installer for the software. In minutes, SRW applies the relevant policies and settings without overriding the device’s OS; the device is approved and the agent can log into the SRW session to access remote environments that are centrally managed by IT.

The agents can now access corporate environments, applications, and data while meeting all security and compliance standards. In other words, when the agent is logged-in, SRW provides a secure and compliant workspace. Once the agent logs out of SRW, lockdown policies are lifted and the agent again has full control of their device. Thousands of agents can be up and running quickly, easily, and securely without the need for additional hardware.

As a software-based solution, ThinKiosk and SRW together are designed to run on any Windows compatible device. The former allows BPOs to reuse existing devices, and the latter enables homeshored agents to use personal devices, obviating the need to deliver devices to agents or retrieve devices when they leave an organization. BPOs can utilize the hardware they already own or agents’ personal devices. The only cost is the software license.

Speedy Self-Serve: Elimination of Work Friction

What’s striking about SRW is the way in which it so easily provides homeshored BPO agents a simple link to access a new way of working. It’s a small file with rapid download, taking anywhere from 4-10 minutes to get an agent ready to work. SRW then sits on an agent’s PC and does not require a high spec computer. Through SRW, that locked-down personal device is connected to the ThinScale Management Platform for simple self-service device validation. Larger customers can scale hundreds and even thousands of agents per month.

This is an agent centric model. Device readiness is the responsibility of the agent and not IT support. The software-only system is designed for remote working while also simplifying the targeting of new employees in large cities. Effectively, it expands the hirable population, offering global reach without hardware logistics and a more complicated management platform, easing aspects of administration. Stats are accessible from the central management console. There is no need to buy equipment.

In essence, Secure Remote Worker offers a high quality, familiar, easy user experience that will do much to improve productivity in the midst of challenging times.

Conclusion: Adapting to an Uncertain World

In May, 2020, a review of a new biography of Galileo appeared in Nature magazine. “While working in Padua,” the piece tells us, “Galileo often visited the nearby port of Venice, where he was introduced to the ‘spyglass,’ a new-fangled instrument from Holland that could be used to see ships approach. Galileo turned it to the heavens to make the discoveries that changed the course of astronomy.”

Not unlike Galileo improving the design of what came to be known as the telescope – such that it could magnify twenty to thirty times – companies like ThinScale are continuing to innovate software-based solutions that offer a scalable, supportable, cost effective, and secure way forward for Work-at-Home programs for global BPOs.

The company regularly adds new functionality to its products based on customer feedback. In that spirit, ThinKiosk and SRW version 6.1 were just released (the same month as the aforementioned book review). There are enhancements to existing control features and additions to the end-user experience. The following main features have been added:

  • Custom Watermarking. Added to the ThinKiosk and SRW user interface (UI). The watermarking feature acts as a deterrent against data leakage (should photos be taken of screens while in a secure session, they can easily be identified).

  • Resource Searchbar. Added to the ribbon bar of the main application tab in the ThinKiosk and SRW UI. Allows users to search through resources available in the application tab. Intended to make life easier on end-users who have a large amount of applications in their secure UI.

  • User Installation & Package Download Indicator. Enhanced existing software package deployment to allow packages to be installed based on the ThinKiosk User in both SRW and ThinKiosk. Allows software packages to be installed on the machine as per normal, but the software will only be accessible from the ThinKiosk or SRW client. Allows companies to deploy software packages for users without worrying about them accessing these apps outside of their secure workspace.

  • Complete Local Control. Enhanced the Application Execution Prevention functionality. Companies can restrict application executables from running even on the user's personal session. Allows the restriction of access to any local corporate applications when the user is outside of the SRW UI (before there was no way of stopping this). Enhancement allows more control over personal endpoints.

  • VMware Horizon Support. The virtual desktop agent provides an added layer of security to virtual desktops and remote desktop session hosts by running checks on the connecting local device. The virtual desktop agent can perform actions such as denying connection if the endpoint making the connection is not running SRW or ThinKiosk.

  • Profile Conflict Resolution. In order to make editing profiles for ThinKiosk and SRW deployments easier for IT administration, the new profile validation checks the settings being applied to an SRW or ThinKiosk profile and will provide a warning if these settings run into compatibility issues.

SRW’s Security & Compliance

Along with complete IT control, SRW offers a secure connection with no risk of data leakage and the assurance of secure and up-to-date endpoints. The following details are noteworthy:

  • PCI, HIPAA, and GDPR compliant

  • Independent Cybersecurity Assessment from advisor Coalfire Systems (also the assessor for Microsoft Azure, Amazon AWS, VMWare)

  • Detection (inspection of personal device; Windows updates, AV, VM detection)

  • Control (secure shell and remove access to underlying OS, admin rights and system keys)

  • Prevention (a set of technologies that constantly enforce security policies; write filter, firewall management and application/service whitelisting)

Image: A frictionless plane, from Wikipedia (Key: N = normal force that is perpendicular to the plane m = mass of object g = acceleration due to gravity θ (theta) = angle of elevation of the plane, measured from the horizontal)

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