Oct 12 2006

School Districts Take A Cue From Thin-Client Installations In Corporate America

A California high school and an Oregon school district combine performance-challenged PCs with leading-edge servers to provide computing and networking capabilities on a shoestring budget.

Keeping pace with new technology doesn’t always break a school’s budget. Just ask the staff of Temescal Canyon High School, in Lake Elsinore, Calif.

In recent years, the number of students at the Southern California school grew at an annual rate of 10 percent, with a current enrollment of about 2,700 students. That kind of expansion, coming at a time when state financial resources are dwindling, puts pressure on every area of the school. But nowhere is the cash crunch more evident than in the school’s ability to provide new technology for its students and teachers.

“Unfortunately, funding for technology in the classroom has disappeared,” says Mark La Porte, Temescal’s technology coordinator and chairman of the history department.

But the lack of funding hasn’t stopped the district from advancing the use of technology in its classrooms. Faced with aging equipment, the school began brainstorming for creative ways to use existing technology. “We said, ‘What can we do with the stuff we have that should, by anyone’s standards, be thrown in the trash can?’” La Porte recalls.

Student Solutions

He presented that challenge to about 20 computer-savvy students. La Porte asked them to come up with a solution that would give their classmates standard applications and Internet access, but would cost the school little money.

Their answer: Temescal Canyon High’s own version of Back to the Future. Taking a cue from thin-client installations in corporate America, the high school refurbished a roomful of old PCs from the mid- to late 1990s and used them as terminals connected to a handful of high-powered servers. These thin clients are modestly equipped computers that run applications and process data stored on high-powered backroom servers.

“We didn’t have the resources to support fat clients on each desktop, so we tried to work with what we had,” La Porte says. “It was the most cost-effective way to provide computer access to our kids.”

That’s a conclusion shared by many other schools. In neighboring Oregon, Portland’s Riverdale School District set a similar course for a thin-client network. After three years, the district has saved thousand of dollars in technology costs and has freed a technology coordinator to spend the day teaching students rather than fixing PC problems.

Up to the Task

With processors that were several generations old—and modest storage and memory resources to match—Temescal Canyon High’s computers had clearly outlived their usefulness as desktop devices. The machines couldn’t run today’s power-hungry applications, and, if the students had continued to use them, the breakdown-prone PCs would have created a support and maintenance nightmare.

Thin clients eliminate the need for powerful and pricey end-user computers. And, because thin clients require only a minimum of internal technology to do the job, even old PCs are up to the task. That fact appealed to La Porte. It meant, he says, that “even though our PCs were seven or eight years old, they could continue to be viable tools.”

Another advantage is that thin clients experience few breakdowns due to their simplicity. Also, since the applications and data are centralized on a small number of servers, all upgrades to applications, operating systems and antivirus programs, as well as maintenance problems, can be handled centrally on a handful of machines.

La Porte and his student technology team descended on the school’s old PCs and stripped out the hard-disk, floppy and CD-ROM drives. They amassed a stack of what were essentially boxes containing only their original processor, a video board and a network interface card.

The next step toward a thin-client network involved installing the right servers in the correct configurations to provide the brains for the fleet of technology-challenged boxes. The school chose seven IBM e325 servers, which provided the horsepower to run a network of what eventually will be 150 thin clients. The servers feature AMD Opteron processors, which have 64-bit extensions that let the processors run next-generation applications without forcing users to recompile their software.

“We want to be able to grow as new technology comes along,” La Porte says. “We got the right stuff for our current needs, and the systems can migrate to 64-bit applications in the future.”

From their central location, the servers provide Internet access and run Windows applications, as well as a Windows-based district-wide testing application. The thin-client screens display a graphical user interface that is familiar to Windows users, providing them with access to the Windows applications and Web browsers residing on the servers.

Temescal Canyon High’s existing network infrastructure, a Fast Ethernet local area network (LAN), provides 100-megabits-per-second data throughput to each connected device. So the network could accommodate the new thin clients without an upgrade.

Although the applications and data pass over the LAN, to students it appears as though they are running the software and storing the data locally. “All the students know is that it works,” La Porte says.

Since the students had spent the previous year without any Internet access at school, they really appreciate the net-surfing ability of the thin-client network. “Now we run a student portal where they can access documents and upload their own documents to store on the servers,” La Porte explains.

The school also saves money with K12LTSP (K-12 Linux Terminal Server Project), a version of the Linux open source operating system that is based on Red Hat Linux and customized for use in education. Because the operating system is open source, the school can use it without paying a licensing fee. And the system is designed for thin-client implementations.

In addition to the Linux/Windows servers, the school also employs eight Sun Microsystems servers that run Solaris UNIX. These machines power a Java-based Windows emulation program called Tarantella, which converts Windows files from the Linux servers into the Java language so students can access them over the Internet using a Web browser.

Temescal Canyon High uses 100 Sun thin-client terminals it bought three years ago. In addition, it is now deploying its IBM server-based thin clients and expects to have 150 of them running by the beginning of next year. Approximately half of them are currently operational. Between the two platforms, the school will have a total of 250 thin clients in operation.

La Porte is pleased with the project’s success. Not only has the high school regained its footing in the digital age, but the effort provides a valuable lesson for all high schools grappling with tight IT budgets.

“This certainly is replicable at every high school in the United States,” says La Porte. “The key is to know what services you want to deliver and then to look realistically at your financial and people resources. And don’t overlook the benefit of having unpaid personnel at your disposal, namely a cadre of kids interested in technology.”

Headache Relief

Portland’s 500-student Riverdale School District first experimented with thin clients in 2000. At the time, Paul Nelson, technology coordinator, was already a confirmed Linux fan. “We used Linux for backend services, and it proved to be rock solid and reliable,” he says.

So, when Nelson found that he was devoting three-quarters of every workday to fighting virus attacks, updating software and attending to computer crashes on the district’s fully configured end-user PCs, he sought relief. “I was looking for a trouble-free workstation without a hard drive that was reliable and cost-effective,” he recalls.

Nelson worked with Linux K12LTSP on a small scale at the district’s middle school. In the summer of 2001, he paired the operating system with some open-source productivity applications from OpenOffice.org, which supplied the students with a word processor, a spreadsheet and an e-mail program. After running the thin-client setup in the middle school for a year, Nelson installed a similar version in the district’s newly opened high school.

Today, about 100 thin clients run throughout the district. The Riverdale school system now buys new thin-client terminals, although the first machines on the thin-client network were old PCs donated by area businesses.

To power its thin clients, Riverdale chose four Intel Zeon 4 dual-processor servers, each of which can accommodate 40 thin clients, Nelson says. Though he concedes that four servers is overkill for the district’s 100 end-user terminals, he explains that he wants students and faculty to have power to spare. “Even after two years, the workstations are still faster than what people were used to using,” Nelson notes.

Even better, the thin clients’ price-to-performance ratio favors the district’s budget, saving $50,000 a year, Nelson estimates. And the simple workstations require little maintenance. “They’re just like telephones,” he says. “You plug them in and turn them on.”

These days, Nelson doesn’t spend three-quarters of each day wrangling software and hardware problems. Instead, he devotes his time to IT instruction. “In a sense, the district added a three-quarter-time teacher,” he says.

Alan Joch is a technology writer based in New Hampshire.

The Ins and Outs of Thin Clients

Challenge: Equip students and teachers with the latest applications and Internet services on a shrinking IT budget.

Technology: Leading-edge servers that run an education-friendly version of Linux and easy-to-maintain thin-client workstations.

Benefits: School districts get the right technology for productivity and Internet applications, while keeping costs and maintenance requirements to a minimum.

Key lessons: Don’t overlook the potential of older PCs. And turn to in-house and student expertise for help.

In 2001, the K-12 Linux Terminal Server Project Web site recorded about 5,000 downloads of its K12LTSP operating system for schools. This year, the site will probably record more than 150,000 downloads.

Five Steps Toward Creating a Thin-Client Network

Here are five steps for setting up a thin-client network:

1. Sort through your old PCs and remove the hard-disk, floppy and CD-ROM drives from the machines. All a thin client needs is the original microprocessor, a video board and a network interface card. Or you can shop around for commercial thin clients, which cost around $300 for the box alone or $500 with a flat-panel display.

2. Choose a high-end server. The machine should be powered by the fastest 32- or 64-bit processor and should have between 2 and 4 gigabytes of RAM. You will need at least one server for every 40 thin clients.

3. Evaluate your network. If you’re already experiencing bandwidth crunches without thin clients, consider adding additional capacity.

4. Download Linux K12LTSP, a terminal-server variant for education, from www.k12ltsp.org. You also may run standard Windows productivity applications or open source substitutes.

5. Create a test lab. Make sure all the hardware and software components work smoothly on a small number of clients running off your main network. As you achieve success, gradually roll out the service throughout the school or district.

Source: Ed Tech reporting