If you can put your computing power on a distant server, why not do the same with your software?

That’s the idea behind application service providers, kissing cousins to thin clients. Instead of purchasing software, schools can “rent” software from another company, which delivers the applications via the internet.

Don Carte, of the Learningstation.com, a major ASP vendor in the educational software market, says ASPs offer some of the same advantages as thin clients, since all software applications are controlled centrally and can be updated simultaneously without a lot of technical manpower.

But ASPs offer an additional advantage over a traditional thin-client approach, he adds—the company’s servers, not the school’s do the processing, and the company is responsible for maintaining them.

“This is much less expensive than the traditional total cost of ownership,” says Carte. He estimates that ASP services cost 40 percent to 60 percent of standard software purchases and ownership over local area networks, because they eliminate the ongoing costs of upgrades. With ASPs, schools always have the latest version of software available to students, Carte says.

“We think the education market is going to lead in terms of implementing ASPs,” he says. “Everyone will be renting or [using] ASPs in three to five years.”

In this realm, Carte thinks, schools will be ahead of businesses, which just invested heavily in year 2000 upgrades.

ASPs are more secure, Carte claims, because “it’s a heck of a lot easier to hack into a school system than into our server.” Because applications are based on the internet, teachers and students are able to access their assignments and classroom applications at any time, from home or from school.

The Learningstation.com’s i-LAN solution moves traditional LAN functions to the company’s centrally managed, internet-accessed server farm. The only requirement for the service on the school end is the ability to launch a web browser.

Since the browser launches applications and support functions, even thin-client devices with little or no hard-drive capabilities can be used to run the latest versions of software releases and stay connected to all other devices on the network. In essence, the web browser replaces the device’s operating system in terms of launching applications.

California-based PowerSchool Inc., which hosts and operates a web-based student information system, is also part of the ASP realm. PowerSchool chief executive Greg Porter developed the idea for his company while he was president of his high school class. Administrators at his school were having problems tracking attendance. So, he and a friend worked on the problem in computer class.

After a few stops in his career, Porter came back to his high-school project and started marketing a web-based student information system to schools. Any system that can access the web can run the software, which helps give parents and educators more information about their children’s schoolwork, identifying learning problems earlier when they are easier to correct.

PowerSchool also sells learning management software that allows schools to correlate curriculum to state and national standards.

The company recently announced its ASP pricing model with a remote hosting option. Instead of incurring an up-front charge for software, hardware, and installations, schools can opt to pay a subscription fee for each student per year. Pricing, which starts at $6 per student per year, is based on the total number of students and other factors.

—D.L.