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Going green saves green

42384824green_globeSchool districts consume huge amounts of energy.  But as much as we wanted to turn green talk into action, it was difficult to do with our aging buildings, large installed infrastructure, and rapidly growing student population. The perfect opportunity came with a bond measure in 2006 that gave us a chance to remake our technology program with a new green vision. We built architecture around virtual desktops–and that has resulted in huge cost savings and considerable energy reductions.

We recently completed a two-year rollout of new technology that could be a model for any district that is struggling to upgrade, improve, and expand technology, while at the same time trying to hold down or cut costs. At Judson Independent School District, we saved $2 million on the cost of traditional computing equipment, quadrupled the number of student computing seats, and cut energy costs by 73 percent. This was made possible by implementing virtual desktops.

Remaking our technology program was an opportunity as vast as the problem we set out to address for our 21,000-student school district on the outskirts of San Antonio, Texas. In 2006, voters approved a sizeable bond measure for Judson ISD that earmarked more than $8 million for technology. This came none too soon, as almost every computer in the district at that time was at least six years old and needed replacing. The student ranks were swelling as well, with growth exceeding 5 percent in each of the two prior years and showing no signs of stopping, meaning we also had to add to our computing capacity.

But the solution wasn’t as simple as just buying new–and more–computers. We didn’t have enough electrical capacity  to power them. Classrooms in many of Judson ISD’s older school buildings couldn’t support more than a couple of computers each and rewiring to boost capacity was simply too expensive. Adding computers would also increase the heat load, translating into additional air conditioning costs–a potentially massive expense in southern Texas.

More computers also meant the likelihood of more support and maintenance problems. Adding to our IT staff wasn’t an option as the bond measure wasn’t an ongoing budgetary increase, and extended warranties for computers were too costly. In addition, the classrooms and libraries where we wanted to install new equipment had limited network capacity. Expanding the infrastructure at that level with additional cabling and network switches was simply too costly a proposition as well.

These limitations led us to consider a variety of options, including thin clients, laptops, and Linux. Moving to open source Linux software on both new and existing computers would save on some software, but not all of it would have been free. And that route wouldn’t solve the problem of access to electricity and the need for expanding the network infrastructure. It would also create more service and support issues, particularly as teachers and staff learned the new software.

Laptops come with a prohibitively high total cost of ownership. They are more expensive than low-priced desktops and also require electricity as well as support and maintenance. In addition, they are theft prone, more likely to be manhandled, and repairs take longer.

Thin clients are also too expensive. The hardware doesn’t cost significantly less than a low-cost desktop and the server needs are also too great for our district. We can’t afford to build server rooms, which require tremendous amounts of electricity and air conditioning, and we don’t have the space for them. Plus, greater server power also represented long-term support needs and the staffing issue wasn’t something we could work around.

We chose to replace our existing PCs with new HP, EPEAT Gold rated energy-efficient models but extended the reach of each one to providing computing to three additional students with the NComputing X-series virtual desktop. NComputing’s technology lets multiple students to share one PC simultaneously, as if each student had their own computer. Personal computers today have become so powerful that the average student, or consumer for that matter, uses just a small fraction of the capacity.

What NComputing’s X-series does is enable each PC to be virtualized so that many students can tap into the excess capacity and share it. Students attach to the shared PC with an NComputing access device, which is small, very durable and nearly indestructible for even the most challenging youngsters.

Further, these devices don’t require any support or maintenance and only the host PC requires attention. Each user’s monitor, keyboard and mouse connect to the access device, which delivers a virtual desktop via a simple connection to the shared computer. Most importantly, the technology allows for each student to still have a fast and powerful computing experience, while drastically cutting costs in a number of areas. Not only is the cost per seat a fraction of the cost of a PC, but the energy use is miniscule as well. Each NComputing access devices uses just 1 to 5 watts of energy, compared to 110 for the average PC.

Judson ISD purchased 761 new PCs, 2,283 NComputing X-series seats, and all of the peripherals and required software for just under $1.2 million. Had we gone with all PCs and purchased 3,044 computers to match our current number of computing seats, the district would have had to spend nearly $2.4 million on equipment plus another $776,000 on infrastructure upgrades. We ultimately saved almost $2 million on our computer upgrade and expansion program just on the equipment.

But while that’s a powerful number, the savings we’ve achieved doesn’t end with the purchase price. Every NComputing X-series access device, the hardware, uses just 1 watt of electricity, compared to 115 for an average PC, so we’ll continue to save year after year in reduced energy costs. It would have cost our school district $84,014 a year to power 3,044 of the older PCs.

Energy costs for that many computers were a recurring expense we had to factor into our decision just as we had to consider the cost of IT support. Our dramatic energy savings didn’t come from just upgrading the host PCs. The most dramatic energy savings came from the NComputing configuration. Had we simply purchased 3,044 new, energy efficient PCs, we would have cut our power use more than half, for a cost of $35,852 per year.

However, the mix of 761 new PCs and 2,283 NComputing X-series virtual desktops cost us just $22,661 per year in electricity, a massive reduction in energy costs but all the more exciting because it’s paying for all of that computing power. So Judson ISD’s per-seat energy cost had been $27.60 per school year and now it’s just $7.44.

The savings in support and maintenance is more difficult to calculate had we increased the number of actual PCs to 3,044. The cost of providing air conditioning for the rooms housing so many more computers is also more difficult to estimate so it’s unclear how much more money we saved. Based on the energy costs, the savings is likely significant.

The savings and reduction in energy usage we’ve achieved through our Green Computing Initiative has already earned our district recognition by the Consortium for School Networking. Judson ISD was one of the first, and the largest, school districts to earn the organization’s Green Computing Certification.

But what’s important to remember is that with the NComputing configuration, we have the same number of PCs to maintain and power as before, yet four times the number of students can now access computers and take advantage of a 21st century education.

Steve Young is the Chief Technology Officer for Judson ISD.

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