Across the country, school technology chiefs face a difficult challenge: Confronted with the reality of shrinking federal budgets and growing technology demands, they must do more with fewer resources at their disposal.

Though few people today dispute the notion that technology, when deployed effectively, can have a profound effect on learning, many districts still struggle to provide regular access to classroom computers for all students. And yet, by taking innovative approaches to their deployment of computers, some districts have achieved remarkable success. In South Carolina’s Orangeburg Consolidated School District 4, for example, district officials have leveraged the processing power of 250 existing computers to create 750 additional student workstations–at a cost of only $250 per seat.

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Ohio’s Green Local School District reportedly saved about $135,000 in hardware expenses when it recently added some 300 new computer terminals. And administrators at Pennsylvania’s Woodland Hills School District say they saved $460,000 when they replaced half the district’s aging fleet of computers just a few years ago.

Even more remarkable than these substantial savings in hardware costs is the ease of deployment and maintenance that each district reports from its solution, which could result in significant cost savings over time. How did each school system achieve these results? Read on to find out.

Cutting costs

Randy Johnson is the director of technology for Orangeburg School District 4. Tired of constantly trying to squeeze extra years out of an already overextended crop of school computers, he agreed to test a system from California-based startup NComputing Co. last year.

NComputing aims to deliver high-end computing to more users at a fraction of the cost of buying traditional PCs, by turning a single computer into a shared network of several machines. Each additional user shares the central processing unit (CPU) and memory of the host computer. Depending on the configuration they choose, schools can support up to 30 students on a single host computer, the company says.

"To be frank, I was skeptical at first about how well the product would work," said Johnson. But the system worked better than he anticipated. After a brief trial period, Johnson purchased enough of the devices for him to turn 250 desktops into 1,000 fully functional workstations.

NComputing was started by former eMachines founder and CEO Stephen Dukker. After spending most of his career developing low-cost personal computers through his eMachines brand, Dukker sold the company to Gateway Inc. and decided instead to move in another direction–a direction he believes "will revolutionize the way [schools] use computers."

Dukker’s idea was to develop a chip that taps into the unused or dormant processing power on an existing CPU. Not unlike the human brain, Dukker says, most personal computers employ only a very small portion of their overall processing power when in use. Rather than increase production costs by purchasing expensive processors from leading chip makers such as Intel and AMD, he said, the company found it could reduce its costs to users dramatically by designing a device that simply borrowed its processing power from existing PCs.

 

The resulting product has no operating system, runs zero software applications, and uses about as much energy as a household light bulb–but, when paired with another machine, it provides users with a near-seamless computing experience, limited only by the output of its host, Dukker says.

NComputing currently offers two product lines, each with its own type of configuration. Resembling a standard PCI memory card, the Xtenda X300 can be installed inside an existing computer, where it then branches out via standard Ethernet cables to a network of satellite keyboards and monitors. Each card contains three Ethernet ports, for supporting up to three additional users, and as many as two cards can be installed in each machine–meaning up to seven people can share a single PC (the host computer’s user, plus six others).

If customers prefer not to load the cards inside existing CPUs, NComputing also provides a version of the product that comes housed in its own stand-alone box, called the NStation L100 or L200. Additional users then connect to this satellite box, which is linked to the host machine or server, Dukker explained. Using this configuration, a standard desktop computer can support up to 10 additional students–and a machine running Windows Server 2003 reportedly can support up to 30.

Because Orangeburg School District 4 was able to use monitors and keyboards from its old PCs, the final cost of its installation was about $250 per seat, Johnson said–about one-fourth of what a traditional PC upgrade might have cost. The savings were so great that the district had money left over to buy new video equipment and install wireless networks in several buildings.

But the benefits went beyond just the cost of the new hardware, he said.

"Our school district has four full-time technology technicians who ran themselves ragged servicing computers that crashed and broke down," explained Johnson. "With the NComputing system, our technicians only have to service one computer for every four students, and fewer PCs mean fewer service requests."

The system also reportedly will cut electricity costs. "As vendors upgrade to higher-performance computers, the reality is that the devices use much more electricity than traditional systems," said Dukker. In some cases, electrical costs can account for 10 to 15 percent of a district’s total IT investment. In a best-case scenario, NComputing’s system consumes about 5 percent as much power as a standalone PC, which can lead to dramatic savings.

Server-based computing

NComputing’s solution is an innovative twist on the idea of "server-based computing." Traditionally linked with the practice of thin-client computing, server-based technologies represent a specialized brand of computing in which applications are deployed, managed, supported, and executed from a central location or server, instead of on standalone machines.

"In server-based computing, we don’t run our applications on a PC; they’re off on a network somewhere," explained Dukker at a recent demonstration of his company’s NStation product. "Our PCs are basically just dumb displays–and, as a result, [they] are never obsolete."

 

Unlike a typical thin-client system, however, NComputing’s solution doesn’t require schools to buy massive servers or run sophisticated software. It also has been designed to support computer-intensive, multimedia-type applications, such as streaming video. "Because of their architecture, NComputing systems do a better job of supporting multimedia applications than one typically finds with a thin-client solution," said Simon Yates, vice president and research director at Forrester Research Inc.

Another hallmark of NComputing’s solution is its ease of installation, customers say. Typically, thin-client solutions are notoriously difficult to set up and deploy, often requiring specialized server requirements and customization. The NComputing systems just hook into existing PCs.

"We had our system up and running in 15 seconds," said Steve Carey, technology director for the Brunswick, Maine, School District, another NComputing user.

Brunswick was looking to add computers in only a few locations, the high school library and business lab. But space was tight, and Carey needed a system that wouldn’t require PC towers. He learned of NComputing’s solution and requested a few units to try. During his tests, Carey determined the district needed NComputing’s L200 systems, which contain a USB flash memory port, so students could save their work. Brunswick went ahead and installed the systems in the library and the business lab, where users work mainly with Microsoft Office and eMail applications.

The systems worked so well that the district has been using them in other places where it needed more computing power. Brunswick has now purchased about 100 units and is using them in its junior high technology lab, its elementary school, and its high school.

"The NComputing systems cost us about one-third as much as typical PCs, so we paid $20,000 rather than $60,000 for the upgrades," noted Carey. In addition, he expects he’ll reduce the time he spends maintaining the computers in the long run. "We’ll just have to upgrade one host computer, and the other 10 are automatically up to date," he explained.

Traditional thin clients

While NComputing is finding success in the school market, it’s not the only company helping schools extend their computing resources. More traditional thin-client solutions also are making a mark. As with NComputing’s system, thin-client solutions are attractive in part because they can reduce support costs dramatically.

"Schools run three to five times more applications than corporations, so their maintenance tasks are quite significant," said Tushar Mutreja, senior manager for state and local government at Citrix Systems Inc., a leading maker of thin-client software and developer of the popular Windows-Based Terminal (WBT) architecture.

 

Once installed, thin clients tend to be more reliable than PCs. Because thin clients typically lack hard drives and other components, they have fewer moving parts and therefore break down less often than standalone computers do.

Software upgrades and maintenance tasks also are simplified. With thin-client systems, school IT personnel have to work with only one copy of an application running on a central server, rather than multiple copies on many different machines. Security functions, too, are easier to deploy: Schools have to lock up data only on a central server, rather than on hundreds of individual machines.

Like most school systems, Ohio’s Green Local School District faced significant challenges in keeping its various computer applications up to date, supporting several different levels of computer expertise at various locations, and maintaining aging PCs. These problems came to a head last fall as the district was expanding. New computers were needed throughout a brand-new elementary school, as well as in the local high school.

Technology Director Jeff Doland had worked with Citrix software in the private sector before joining the Green Local School District, and he’d had good success with it. So, rather than purchase PCs, the district decided to buy thin-client hardware from Wyse Technology Inc., which runs Citrix’s software.

Doland estimates this thin-client option cost about $300 per device, compared with $800 for desktop PCs, resulting in an initial cost savings of about $135,000. The thin-client architecture also prevents students from downloading or installing non-approved software, such as malicious viruses or worms. And maintenance is now simpler, too, which is a good thing, because the district employs only two full-time IT technicians.

So far, Doland has found that multimedia applications do not create any special problems: "Our hardware includes built-in sound cards that support multimedia educational applications," he explained. "A number of other local districts have come by to talk about thin-client systems, and I heartily recommend them."

Citrix recently has tried to make it simpler for schools to purchase its software.

"When we first purchased Citrix products, we had a number of thin-client servers and had to pay licensing fees for each of them," said Doug Noell, management information systems director for North Carolina’s Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, which has 10,000 students and about 5,000 PCs and laptops and 1,200 Citrix thin-client systems. "That is no longer the case, and we have reduced our software costs by centralizing the number of licenses we need to run the system."

A desire to reduce the Total Cost of Ownership of its desktop systems led the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools to try thin-client technology in 2001. Noell explained, "We were putting in more desktop systems and the applications they were running were becoming more complicated, so it was becoming difficult for us to service the devices."

The district realized some immediate benefits. The cost of the thin-client devices was about one-third that of desktop PCs, and maintenance chores were simpler. "To fix a problem on a thin client takes about five minutes, whereas a PC fix can require as much as half a day," Noell said.

While Noell has found thin clients to be a good choice for certain applications, he doesn’t think they should replace desktop computers entirely. There have been times, he said, when fully functional PCs have emerged as the more viable option–particularly when using multimedia applications. The district plans to open a new high school this fall, and only half of its computers will be thin clients; the rest will be standalone computers.

 

"A district has to outline its needs and then develop an IT strategy that will specifically meet those needs," Noell concluded. "In some cases, it will find that thin clients fit the purpose, and in other instances, a PC will be the best option."

A ‘golden image’

When it was time to upgrade his district’s computers in early 2003, Kevin Iachini, technology director for the Woodland Hills School District in Pennsylvania, faced a problem typical to many school districts: lots of requirements, but not lots of money.

Woodland Hills has nine academic buildings and one administrative building that serve nearly 6,000 K-12 students. To meet its educational and administrative needs, the district has more than 2,000 computers, which run a variety of applications: reading and math tutorials, internet research, word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations.

But the district’s IT staff was struggling. Maintenance of its PCs was a never-ending task. The machines were constantly in use, so problems arose with their hard drives, floppy drives, CD drives, and internal electronics. In addition, keeping all of the devices in synch and the applications on each machine up to date were problems. The district had a product to automate the deployment of software updates, user profiles, and data to the desktops; however, it was not easy to use. The process of synchronizing all of the district’s software was tedious, time consuming, and required coordination between the technical staff and classroom teachers.

The district turned to BXP, a software program from Ardence Inc., a company purchased by Citrix last year. The Ardence software stores applications and data–including a computer’s operating system–as a "golden image" on a central server and then sends this image to the users’ terminals when they log on.

Ardence’s software lets computer users, in effect, replace their internal disk drive with a disk image file system, dubbed vDisk, that is stored on a central server. As a computer goes through its boot operation, the Ardence server associates the system with the appropriate vDisk–including its operating system and all applications–and delivers this vDisk to the device. The Ardence server can be configured to deliver different vDisk images to various client machines, or a common vDisk to any number of them.

At the start of the 2003-04 school year, Woodland Hills replaced about half its desktop systems with 1,000 thin clients. At the end of the year, the district determined that it had cut its hardware costs by about $460,000–a savings of nearly 67 percent, compared with what the district would have paid to purchase standalone computers. (The district paid about $250 for each thin-client system, compared with just over $700 for new PCs.)

In addition to its up-front savings on hardware, Woodland Hills’ repair costs reportedly went down, and system dependability improved. With fewer installed components, and none that are particularly susceptible to accidental damage or vandalism, ongoing hardware repair and replacement costs have been reduced significantly. When problems arise, they are easier to troubleshoot, because there are fewer potential problem spots.

 

 

"Because the IT department’s maintenance tasks plummeted, we are now able to support the computer systems with half the number of service technicians," said Iachini.

Hurdles to deployment

The potential benefits of server-based computing solutions notwithstanding, there are some issues that schools will need to address.

Schools thinking of deploying NComputing’s solution will have to check with their software vendors, especially Microsoft, to ensure their computers can legally serve multiple users off of a single system. Although Windows Server Edition has been designed for multiple-user scenarios and provides both technical and licensing support for multiple-user desktop access through Microsoft’s Terminal Services, a variation of Citrix’s multi-terminal software, Windows XP was neither designed to support, nor licensed for, concurrent usage–so it’s not as clear how schools can use it with NComputing’s hardware.

School leaders also should understand that additional software licenses might be required with any new thin-client hardware they install. In addition to a Windows Customer Access License (CAL), a Terminal Services CAL is required whenever customers use Windows Terminal Services functionality. Schools with networks running on a Microsoft platform need to understand their additional licensing requirements, if any, which could drive the cost of their deployments higher. This isn’t an issue with Linux-based machines, though, which have different licensing policies.

If schools have multi-user-based software licensing agreements with Microsoft, the additional charges can be manageable. Orangeburg School District 4, which is using NComputing’s solution, has a site-licensing contract with Microsoft and made sure that it complied with Microsoft’s licensing requirements. "Microsoft has tried to make it easy for school districts to justify installation of its software," said Johnson, the district’s technology director.

Another possible issue is control. Students, teachers, and other computer users might not be happy ceding control over their applications to a central server or authority and often fight the transition to server-based solutions. "Some users only feel comfortable when their applications and documents reside right on a local device," said Chapel Hill-Carrboro City’s Noell.

While makers of server-based computing solutions have been addressing performance issues with their products, these still can exist when running multimedia-intensive applications. The NComputing system is able to run most multimedia applications today, but loading a number of processor-intensive, transaction-oriented programs could tax the system in the future. The company says its Xtenda system can handle as many as seven users per machine, but Orangeburg’s Johnson limited the number of users to four per PC by only installing one card in each machine.

"We do not want our users encountering any delays when they access different applications," he explained. In addition, the district relies on one computer per student in its business lab, because these students require Flash technology and individual CD drives.

While many programs operate on server-based systems, the Brunswick School District ran into a problem running a reading program from Lexia Learning Systems on its NComputing system. Orangeburg School District had a similar issue with Pearson Digital Learning’s SuccessMaker. In this case, the graphic capabilities added to the latest release of the software required multimedia features on each workstation, according to Johnson. Pearson Digital Learning solved the problem by moving the school to an earlier software release, but that is a short-term rather than a long-term fix.

Server-based computing solutions also create a single point of failure. If something goes wrong with the central device, more than one user is knocked offline.

Despite these potential hurdles, school IT directors who have adopted server-based solutions say they can significantly reduce the costs of deploying and supporting classroom computers–thereby giving more kids access to technology. And new developments in the computer industry could give school leaders even more reasons to consider such solutions.

"As schools move to Vista and Microsoft Office 2007, they might question the need to stick with the PC model: Their older hardware could be incompatible with the new software, so the migration could require a great deal of time and effort," said Citrix’s Mutreja.

Consequently, the server-based computing model could garner more attention in the coming months. And school leaders at least should be open to looking at this option, many experts say.

"Even though PCs have been around for more than 25 years, there still are markets, such as schools and underdeveloped nations, where the cost of computer hardware has been a deterrent to broader deployments," said Tim Bajarin, managing partner at market research firm Creative Strategies. Server-based computing solutions "continue to evolve, so they might enable these groups to address such problems with new, low-cost hardware."

Paul Korzeniowski is a freelance writer in Massachusetts who writes frequently about technology-related issues.

eSchool News staff contributed to this report.

Links:

Orangeburg Consolidated School District 4
http://www.orangeburg4.com

Green Local School District
http://www.green.k12.oh.us

Woodland Hills School District
http://www.whsd.k12.pa.us

NComputing Co. Ltd.
http://www.ncomputing.com

Forrester Research Inc.
http://www.forrester.com

Brunswick School Department
http://www.brunswick.k12.me.us

Citrix Systems Inc. http://www.citrix.com

Wyse Technology Inc.
http://www.wyse.in

Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools
http://www.chccs.k12.nc.us

Ardence Inc.
http://www.ardence.com

Creative Strategies
http://www.creativestrategies.com