Sun Microsystems has unveiled an innovative technology that the company claims will make educational computing as user-friendly and reliable as picking up and using a telephone handset.

Like a telephone, the new book-sized Sun Ray 1 enterprise appliance—introduced Sept. 8—is easy-to-use, affordable, and works the instant it’s plugged in, according to Sun. The network computing device lets users access existing applications and resources from anywhere on a local area network via smart-card technology, but the device does not require a desktop operating system or client-based software to run.

Unlike a traditional PC, Sun Ray 1 doesn’t tie the user to a fixed desk or location, the company said. Students moving from classroom to classroom simply insert their smart cards into any Sun Ray appliance to bring up their personal desktop, including homework or lessons in progress. They can then pick up where they left off before.

“With the complexity removed from the desktop, the Sun Ray enterprise appliance lets teachers do what they do best—teach,” said Kim Jones, vice president of global education and research for Sun Microsystems. “Teachers are no longer burdened with the problem of recovering from a crash in the middle of class and backing up each and every desktop in their classrooms.”

Through Sun’s unique, Java-based “Hot Desk” technology, the Sun Ray appliance reads the code on a user’s smart card and communicates it to a Solaris server running Sun Ray enterprise server software. The software then maps a user’s session and runs all applications on the server while projecting an image of the user’s desktop to a monitor attached to the Sun Ray device.

When a user first logs on to the system, he or she creates a “session” that is always running on the server. When the user is interrupted—as at the end of class—all he or she has to do is pull out the smart card. When the card is inserted into any other Sun Ray appliance on the network, the user can continue his session exactly where he left off instantly, with no rebooting required.

“Students cannot load unauthorized programs or games on to the desktop, and even unplugging it mid-session won’t harm schoolwork or files, which makes Sun Ray 1 a truly kid-proof appliance,” Jones said.

Ultra-thin client

Until now, thin-client solutions—in which all applications reside on a server and processing occurs at the server level—have been relatively slow to catch on. But Sun thinks its new Sun Ray device will be different.

Breaking from previous thin-client architectures, the Sun Ray 1 is a true “appliance,” the company said. Unlike PCs and Windows-based terminals, the device runs no application or system code locally and thus requires no configuration or desktop management, no changes to existing applications, never crashes, and never needs upgrading, according to Sun Microsystems.

The Sun Ray’s easy installation makes it easily replaced, Sun added. If a student spills a drink on the device, the network manager can simply unplug and replace it with another without IP addresses or system software to reboot.

In addition, the Hot Desk architecture gives users the ability to access Windows NT or mainframe applications by connecting an NT server with Citrix Metaframe server software to the network. The Citrix client-side software comes bundled with the Sun server.

The Carrollton City School District in Carrollton, Ga., has deployed several Sun Ray 1 enterprise appliances powered by a Sun Enterprise 450 server in its fifth grade classrooms and elementary school media center. Assistant Superintendent of Technology O.P. Cooper told eSchool News he expects the devices will vastly reduce the cost of administration and support.

“Because they are stateless devices, the useful life expectancy of the Sun Ray 1 appliance should be far longer than a typical PC, evidenced by Sun’s offering a 5-year replacement warranty on the appliances,” he said. “The Sun Ray platform will be a great match for schools.”

The Sun Ray 1 enterprise appliance is available for school districts via three special pricing bundles. Starting at $850 per unit, each bundle includes a Sun Enterprise server, StarOffice software, and 20, 50, or 100 Sun Ray 1 enterprise appliances complete with two USB ports, keyboard, mouse, and 17-inch Sony color monitor. Leasing options also are available starting at $13.50 per month per desktop, based on a 5-year lease.

Sun Ray 1