If your schools suffer from a shortage of qualified computer network administrators or lack adequate wiring to handle traditional network configurations, there was good news for you at DEMO 98, a trade show for emerging technologies held late in February in Indian Wells, Calif. The show, which featured devices soon to be rolled out as commercial products, highlighted a new category of single-purpose machines promising to provide no-fuss, low-cost network computing for schools and other users.

So far, three companies‹Cobalt Microserver, Sun Microsystems, and Data General Corp.‹have debuted the new machines, called “internet access appliances.” Think of them as Cuisinarts without all the attachments.

The model receiving the most attention at DEMO 98 was the Network Utility Box (NUB), created by Data General Corp.’s THiiN Line division.

The NUB is a mini network server. It does what the big servers do‹namely, connects computers in a local area to each other and to the internet. But it can make those connections without wires. Best of all, it can do all that for $500, about a tenth of what you’d pay for a heftier server. Although designed for a small office or home environment, the company sees plenty of applications for the scaled-down server in K-12 schools.

Unlike the big servers, the NUB is compact, easy to use, and requires no maintenance, said Craig Heim, product marketing director for the Westboro, Mass.-based THiiN Line. The box is about the size and shape of a home doorbell, Heim said‹or, stretching for an educational comparison, about the size of a Daytimer, a meatloaf, or “four erasers.”

The NUB provides wireless service, freeing library labs and classrooms from wiring constraints. The machine will talk to your internet service provider (ISP) via any method‹including standard analog modem, ISDN, x-DSL, or cable. Running on a 56 Kbps modem, the box can connect as many as eight PCs, laptops, or thin clients. With higher speeds, however, hundreds of users can work from one box.

Another nice little trick is that NUB will allow more than one user to connect to the internet simultaneously from one ISP account‹something you normally can’t do with commercial accounts.

But wait a minute. Doesn’t this sound a lot like last year’s industry disappointment, the network computers, or “NetPCs,” which were supposed to do what full-power PCs did for a lot less money?

“I don’t think so,” said James Staten, an analyst with the independent research firm Dataquest. “If you want to have a server in your school, it takes you a lot of time to configure that box. It takes a full-time person to understand networking, protocols, and applications. With the thin server, you take the box, hand it to the teacher, they plug it in, open their web browser, configure it in five minutes, and they’re done.”

Even if the price of traditional servers were to fall, Staten added, additional expenses soon would pile on. The necessary networking software alone could set you back $700, not to mention the ongoing costs of maintenance and administration. In view of all the add-ons, Staten said, “the cost of the box is really inconsequential.”

“Sure, servers that are $2,500 or higher now could come down to $1,500 or $2,000 next year,” Heim conceded. “But the ease of use is a big factor. Who wants to manage Windows NT when you can have a plug-and-play device that requires no management?”

Alternative to WinTel

The appliance line that includes NUB is being developed as an alternative to the WinTel way of computing, said Heim.

“Thin,” or scaled-down, machines do one thing‹or limited things‹whereas robust computers do many. The advantage to these “special-purpose devices” is that they are simple, easy to use, and cost effective, according to Heim.

He likes to compare the thin machine to familiar single-use appliances‹such as a blender. In the same way “a blender offers you only the functions you’d expect from a blender,” a NUB offers you only the network-server functions of the bigger computers, not all the additional things the bigger computers could do.

The concept leads to increased efficiency, Heim said. “The failure of any one thing brings the other things down.” THiiN Line appliances are more worry-free, Heim said, because they only perform functions that don’t require much maintenance.

With this technology, the internet will be streamed into schools like electricity or water, the company promises. And the NUB will be as forgettable as the fuse box or water meter. “It won’t need any maintenance,” Heim said. “It doesn’t need anyone to go out and do routine things to it. There’s no system administrative functions for this device. Plug it in; it works in five minutes. You’ll never need to look at it again.”

Look, Ma, no wires

A wireless system provides an alternative to connecting PCs in a lab via an ethernet. Setting up a network takes a lot of hardware, software, and technical expertise. The NUB, however, is a sealed box that contains all the necessary hardware and software. It can connect to the internet using regular or high-speed phone lines or cable modems, and it can connect computers within 150 feet. Additional “repeaters” can extend the range in 150-foot increments.

With wireless capability, your students could connect to the internet from anywhere in the library, lab, or classroom‹possibly with laptops or thin clients, scaled-down PCs that basically allow you just to browse the web. Merely open the laptop or turn on the client, boot up the operating system, and you’ve got an immediate, continuous wireless connection to the internet, manufacturers say.

“There is a compelling need for a new category of internet appliance, one that lets users access the internet both seamlessly and simultaneously,” said Chris Shipley, industry analyst and executive producer of DEMO 98. “[W]ireless network utility boxes might be the solution to getting multiple laptops, PCs, or other information-enabled devices onto the net quickly and easily, without having to be tethered to network cables.”

Wireless access also means easier networking in old or historic school buildings, said Dataquest’s Staten. For schools such as El Paso (Texas) High School, built in the early 1900s, wiring can pose special challenges.

“It’s very expensive, and it takes a very good contractor to do that well so it doesn’t ruin the aesthetics of the building,” said Pat Sullivan, executive director of technology for the El Paso Independent School District.

In the days before the district was cabled, she explored wireless connectivity with the Department of Defense in nearby White Sands. The department was willing to provide wireless service to El Paso schools, but at costs that were “exorbitant,” said Sullivan.

Sullivan was lucky enough to have expert help when her schools were cabled through a project with Time-Warner. Otherwise, she concedes, inexpensive, high-quality wireless would have been the way to go.

Proxy server

The NUB can act as a proxy server, caching pages from the web for later use. “Cache” means storing data‹in this case, from the internet‹on local computer memory. Computers at individual schools might also cache information from a computer at the central district office. The proxy server can do this during off hours when the network is free.

A proxy server can also bypass time-consuming downloads from the internet when pages that have already been called up are requested again. The proxy simply retrieves the document for subsequent requests from local memory.

“Whenever you grab a web page, especially over a modem, you wait forever,” Staten said. “That can be a real problem in a school, especially when kids only have 30 minutes on the web.”

THiiN Line

http://www.thiin.com

Data General Corporation

http://www.dg.com

El Paso School District

http://www.elpaso.k12.tx.us

California Educational Data Processing Association’s web page on proxy servers and K-12 schools:

http://www.cedpa-k12.org/databus-issues/v36n1/proxy.html

Cobalt Microserver

http://www.cobaltmicro.com

Sun Microsystems

http://www.sun.com