For the Tangipahoa Parish School System, federal stimulus funds provided a unique opportunity to get some new computers for its classrooms. But for the district, located about 40 miles northwest of New Orleans, upgrading systems wasn’t a simple matter of buying new, previously unaffordable machines.
“Most of our schools are extremely old buildings, so the electrical facilities don’t support a lot of computers per classroom,” says Mike Diaz, assistant director of technology at the 19,000-student district. At times the power demands resulted in sudden outages in school buildings. Increasing the number of computers would therefore require costly upgrades to electrical systems. The district’s solution: Use desktop virtualization to allow a group of students to share one computer.
The district settled on NComputing’s desktop virtualization software and access devices. The system takes advantage of the fact that today’s PCs are so powerful that only a small part of their capacity is used at any given time to run a typical application like Microsoft Word, according to Carsten Puls, vice president of strategic marketing at NComputing.
NComputing taps that extra computing power by effectively splitting a single PC to create at least three additional “virtual desktops.” The virtual desktops allow students to work on their own applications simultaneously, all using the power, memory and processor of the single host PC.
The Tangipahoa district’s version of NComputing technology allows six students in a classroom to share a single PC. One user works on the host PC, while the other five students work on virtual desktops. The virtual desktops draw all of their computing and electrical power from the host PC through “access devices”—thin, rectangular boxes that are each connected via cords to the host PC.
The access devices, which are small enough to fit comfortably in your hand, are connected to a keyboard, mouse and monitor just as with an ordinary desktop. But the difference is that the access devices don’t have a CPU, processor or moving parts. They simply “bum off” the host PC.
Different versions of the NComputing system can provide districts with three to 10 virtual desktops per classroom connected directly by cords to the host computer, which also can be used as a terminal. Another system allows for up to 30 users to share a single PC via standard Ethernet networks. LG Electronics has partnered with NComputing to produce LCD monitors incorporating NComputing’s virtual desktop technology.
Reducing Electrical Demands
At $70 per additional virtual user, Tangipahoa’s NComputing system—known as the X550—was a bargain, Diaz says. Buying six new PCs for a classroom would have cost around $6,000, rather than the approximately $2,000 the district paid to equip a classroom with a new, host PC and virtual terminals, including monitors, mice and keyboards. In addition, each access device requires about one watt of power, reducing demands on schools’ electrical systems, Diaz says. The system also lowers maintenance costs by reducing the number of PCs that district IT staff have to manage.
The lower cost is allowing the district to install the devices at its 37 schools in a shorter time frame than would be required for traditional PCs, says Tangipahoa Superintendent Mark Kolwe. The technology, which is being paid for with stimulus funds and Title I money carried over from the previous year, is the kind of nonrecurring expense that is well-suited for the one-time-only stimulus money, Kolwe says. “Anytime we have an opportunity to update technology, we try to do it here.”