Computing Made Practical for K-12 Schools

The educational benefits promised to students by computer technology sounds irresistible: Computers can put the Web’s virtually infinite research capabilities to work. Teachers can record assignments online; automate testing, create online pod-cast lectures and test reviews and much more.

But computers are expensive. Hardware and software, electricity and maintenance technicians will drive costs well into the millions over time.

Don’t forget security. Students are excellent hackers. Computer systems need security software to keep students from hacking into administrative systems and changing so-so grades to A’s.

Teachers will need extra training, too. They will need to understand how to teach with technology and how to keep students on the subject and off the Web.

Those are serious challenges.

A growing number of K-12 school districts are overcoming those challenges with thin client computing.

Thin clients slash hardware and software costs. “Districts that have moved to thin client computing have seen hardware and software acquisition costs drop by 40 percent,“ says Jeff McNaught, chief strategy officer with Wyse, a thin client provider that works with K-12 districts.

Thin clients also require little maintenance and eliminate the need to increase the IT department staff that comes with the acquisition of hundreds of desktops and laptops. “School districts using thin client systems have seen a 29 percent reduction in the IT department spend for maintenance,” McNaught continues. “Districts with thin clients are also seeing an 88 percent reduction in downtime for equipment in the classroom. Thin clients don’t crash. They don’t need hard drive updates or software updates.

“Thin clients will last for eight years, compared to desktops which wear out in three to four years.”

Thin clients use less energy than desktops and laptops. In fact, by combining efficient new heating, ventilating and air-conditioning systems with new thin client computer networks, energy services contractors can cut district electric bills by enough to pay for all the equipment.

It sounds impossible. It isn’t. It is a new way to equip 21st-century classrooms with technology.

What Is Thin Client Computing?
A thin client looks like a small laptop computer. What makes it thin is what’s inside — not much. Thin clients contain no disk drives or other moving parts. They have a mouse or track pad, solid-state memory, operating systems and a software application that can tie into remote computers called hosts or servers. The thin client taps the power of the remote computer and delivers that power to a user. When a session ends, the user saves the work to a storage medium located near the server.

Thin client is the most common term used to describe this device, but other terms are popping up. San Jose-based Wyse Technology, Inc. provides thin clients as well as zero clients, which do not even have an operating system. Zero clients use the host’s operating system.

Another term is a skinny client, which is a stripped down conventional desktop or laptop. Skinny clients are an option for legacy equipment that has not yet reached the end of its useful life.

“Thin client computing, also called cloud computing, moves software applications and data storage to a central server, which might be located anywhere — in a single classroom, in the district’s IT department or at a third-party site that allows access over the Internet,” says McNaught.

The thin client to server connection boosts security. Students with a conventional desktop and browser can go anywhere on the net that district filters don’t filter out. But with thin clients, users can only access what the server will provide. Thin client systems enable teachers to identify materials for their classes. The server won’t provide other materials to students. So thin clients will enable teachers to control materials students look at during class.

What can a K-12 district do with thin clients?

The Hudson Falls System
Hudson Falls Central School District in Hudson Falls, N.Y., serves 2,400 students, who attend classes in five school buildings. The district also includes a district administrative office building and a transportation and maintenance facility.

Greg Partch, director of education technology with Hudson Falls manages a Hewlett Packard (HP) thin client system, which includes regular thin clients as well as skinny clients. “We are 98 percent thin client for instruction, with 1,800 thin client devices,” he says.

Students, faculty and staff use a thin client by logging on to any workstation with their own username and password. The system associates each username and password with a profile that has permission to access certain applications and files, but not others.

It is virtually impossible to control what students will look up with a computer connected to a network and an Internet browser. Filters can prevent access to sites considered harmful, but that leaves the rest of the Internet open to students not interested in the class at hand. By restricting access to the permissions in student profiles, Hudson Falls’ thin clients solve that problem.

Partch hosts the thin and skinny clients with a cloud — a series of 10 HP servers called blades. The cloud contains more than 100 educational software applications that students with appropriate profiles may access.

Each server can handle about 50 simultaneous sessions; the 10 servers together can take care of 500 simultaneous sessions.

What about the other 1,300 thin clients in the Hudson Falls’ total of 1,800 thin clients? “You need to size the server farm to accommodate the number of students, teachers, administrators and others that will be using the system simultaneously,” Partch says. “Enabling 500 thin clients to operate at one time takes care of our needs.”

It also limits software costs. If 1,800 devices were operating at the same time, Partch would have to buy 1,800 licenses for each piece of software available to those thin clients. Since only 500 slim clients can run at once, and since most will be using different kinds of software, Partch finds that the system functions fine with 100 licenses for each software applications. That’s a significant savings.

HP provides software that meters software use. If 100 licenses for a particular application happens to be in use and another person attempts to start up that application, he or she receives a message that all available copies of the application are in use.

HP provides another software management tool that helps manage costs. “A software application called Inquiry enables me to run reports that show how many times various applications have run,” Partch says. “The first time I ran the report, I found a number of titles that were never used. I let those licenses lapse and saved $40,000.

“When a principal asks for more computers, I run a report on hardware use. Usually, I’ll find a number of thin clients that aren’t being turned on. Instead of buying new thin clients, we simply move those not being used to where they are needed.

“To do this with desktops and laptops, you would have to examine each computer. It would take forever.”

Thin clients also make maintenance easier and less expensive. Partch says that the 1,800 thin clients need little maintenance, especially compared to 1,800 desktops and laptops with disk drives that break down and software that must be updated continually.

Partch maintains the Hudson Falls system by looking after the software installed on the 10 servers and servicing the stacks of disk drives in the server room.

He would need a much larger, perhaps prohibitively expensive, staff to maintain 1,800 desktops and laptops.

Thin Client Systems Slash Electricity Costs
The Cleveland, Ohio-based Brewer-Garrett Company is an energy services contractor that evaluates energy use in businesses and school districts and recommends new, efficient lighting and heating, ventilating and air-conditioning systems (HVAC) in a package designed to pay for the new systems with savings garnered from utility bills.

“While working on school district projects, we noticed a great deal of energy waste associated with computers in the school districts where we were doing projects,” says Dave Smith, Brewer-Barrett’s business-development manager.

The discovery led Brewer-Garrett to add thin client computing to the packages the company designs for school districts. According to Smith, the sales pitch goes this way: “If your annual debt obligation for new lighting, HVAC and computer systems totals $100,000 per year for 10 or 15 years, we will design a system that will save you $100,000 in energy costs per year, and we’ll guarantee it.

“In other words, at the end of each year, we’ll audit your savings. If you only save $90,000 in one year, we’ll cut a check for $10,000.”

Thin client computing is so energy efficient compared to desktop and laptop computing that you can literally buy a system that will pay for itself with money saved on utility bills.

Thin clients have no disk drives to draw electricity. They use LCD monitors instead of energy-hogging CRTs. “Thin clients draw 15 watts of power,” says Liz Crawford, HP’s education marketing manager. “Traditional desktops draw 80 watts. That difference produces a significant cost savings”

And of course, thin client hardware costs less to begin with and lasts twice as long as desktops and laptops. Given tight management of software licenses, the software costs less too.

Hudson Falls’ Partch sums up: “Sooner or later, all school districts will probably go thin.”