Energy, cost and time savings fuel Arizona school’s move to thin-client computing.
Judging by end-user satisfaction alone, the 20 new Hewlett-Packard thin-client workstations at Peralta Trail Elementary School in Gold Canyon, Ariz., are an unqualified success.
“The kids love them,” says school librarian/media specialist Kim Shirley. “They find it easier to work, and there’s more space with everything built in. There’s less maintenance and fewer problems for me. And it’s even quieter because there’s no noise from 20 [hard drives] buzzing and cooler because the new computers don’t give off as much heat.”
The new computing units, located in the library/resource center at Peralta Trail, are part of a system-wide deployment at Apache Junction Unified School District that will eventually replace more than 1,700 fully configured desktop models with HP t5730 thin clients mounted to 17-inch HP LCD monitors. The migration to thin clients at AJUSD, which comprises nine schools serving 6,000 students, is scheduled for completion by June 2010.
Thin clients are solid-state computing devices that provide network access to central servers, which run applications and do most of the processing. Compared with PCs, thin clients promise significantly lower hardware, energy and management costs, says Jon Castelhano, director of technology at AJUSD. And because thin clients have no moving parts, they last longer and create fewer maintenance headaches.
“We feel like we’re ahead of our time; not too many other districts that I know of are doing this,” Castelhano says. “With thin clients, we’re getting out in front of many of our IT issues.”
But AJUSD took that step only after careful consideration. Castelhano first looked into the technology in 2005 at the urging of AJUSD Superintendent Gregory Wyman, who had experience with thin clients in his previous job at another Arizona district. At first, Castelhano and his staff found that the products available lacked sufficient onboard memory to run many of the software applications used at AJUSD, and the necessary upgrades to make them work would have been prohibitively expensive. The district stuck with its aging PCs while the IT staff investigated alternatives to traditional desktops.
Having uncovered no better options, AJUSD revisited thin clients early in 2008 and discovered that they were now equipped with a gigabyte of flash memory and a gigabyte of RAM — plenty of memory to run the district’s software. In addition, advances in Terminal Services provided by Microsoft Server 2008 significantly improved network access to the programs running on central servers.
AJUSD chose HP thin clients partially because of the manufacturer’s 2007 acquisition of Neoware, whose thin clients had impressed Castelhano when he first looked at the technology. In the end, however, the management features provided by HP thin clients, especially when used with Symantec Altiris software, were key to the buying decision, Castelhano says.
Passing the Test
Gregory Wyman (left) and Jon Castelhano of Apache Junction unified school District aim to replace more than 1,700 desktops with thin clients by June 2010.
Photo Credit: Steve Craft
The AJUSD Technology Department set up a thin-client pilot in one classroom in spring 2008 in which the teacher and students reported that the thin clients did everything their desktops had done, but the thin clients were much faster. Castelhano and his staff also tested the power consumption of the district’s standard PC with a CRT monitor against a thin client with an LCD and estimated that the switch to thin clients would result in energy savings of 67 percent.
“Thin clients make total sense from so many different efficiency perspectives in running a school district,” Wyman says. “In my last district, I saw the benefits in energy savings, reduction in staff time needed to keep the network up and running, life of the machines and the fact that you can get two-to-one buying power in thins as compared to PCs. I wanted to bring them here, and Jon [Castelhano] took the time to find the right solution for us.”
AJUSD has not yet calculated a hard ROI on the thin clients, but immediate savings in electrical, heating and air-conditioning costs are substantial, Wyman says.
Except for some minor glitches in making printer connections and modifying existing user profiles, the thin-client deployment has gone smoothly, says Castelhano.
“When the machines arrive, we assemble them and image them, then we take them to the location where they’ll be used and plug them into the network,” he says. “After that, if we want to update software for the thin clients, we can do it all at once on the server. With the PCs, we have to go from machine to machine.”
Evaluate Your Options
Bandwidth is essential to any thin-client project. The AJUSD WAN operates over a robust 1 gigabyte fiber-optic backbone, says Castelhano. Beyond having the infrastructure to support thin clients, he advises anyone considering a project similar to AJUSD’s to evaluate their software environments carefully before moving forward.
“Know your audience and their software, and then test the technology as it really will be used,” he says.
Past difficulties in providing access to multimedia software over thin-client architectures have slowed adoption of the technology in school settings, says Gartner analyst Bill Rust. He echoes Castelhano’s advice that districts make sure all mission-critical applications run well in the thin-client architecture before they buy.
Thin-client projects with new hardware, such as the one at AJUSD, are gaining some traction in K–12 districts around the country, says Rust. Some school systems are also reconfiguring their networks and repurposing their PCs as thin-client terminals to save on hardware costs. Other districts are using thin clients for the back-office applications used by administrators, staff and teachers, he says.
“The maintenance and management advantages, not to mention the energy-saving green aspects of thin-client computing, make it a great opportunity,” says Rust. “The key question is always, ‘Does it do what you need to have done?’ Where the answer is ‘Yes,’ thin clients make a lot of sense.”
With the migration to thin clients for student use scheduled to be completed by mid-2010, provided that there are no delays in state funding to the district, AJUSD may consider moving back-end systems to thin clients and eventually may investigate mobile thin-client computing, says Castelhano.
Thin clients fit well into Wyman’s view of the school district’s mission to provide crucial resources to students in the most economical way possible.
“Technology is always going to be part of these kids’ lives, and we need to make sure they have access to it,” he says. “Part of us making sure we can do it involves managing costs. With the thin clients, we’re also creating a greener society, and that’s pretty important.”
Gartner analyst Bill Rust has outlined key questions to consider before starting a thin-client project:
- Will your infrastructure provide enough bandwidth?
- How will key applications perform?
- Have you considered all the aspects of the total cost of ownership and documented them?
- Are the benefits of the project sustainable?
How Thin Clients Work
- Applications and data all reside on central servers. AJUSD uses a blade server with four active blades running Microsoft Server 2008, which provides the Terminal Services (TS) software necessary for communication over the network between server and client devices (in this case, HP t5730s).
- Users log on to any thin client, initiating a computing session as they would if they were logging on locally to a PC, but actually establishing a network connection to the central server. Multiple users can log on to thin clients, establishing many separate sessions that run simultaneously, each separate from the others.
- Keyboard and mouse input is transmitted to the server via TS.
- TS delivers application interfaces and data to the user from the central server. The only processing that takes place at the client is displaying information and accepting user input.
- Processing of user requests takes place on the central server, where changes are stored.
- After one user logs off, another user can log on to the same device for a new session.
EDTECH Quick Poll
What are the top four benefits that would compel your organization to deploy thin clients?
- Improved total cost of ownership
- Easier to implement virtualization
- Easier server maintenance
- Easier to protect data against viruses
Lower Energy Costs, Longer Life
A recent Forrester Research study compared the energy consumption of thin clients to typical PCs:
- Thin client — 6 to 50 watts/hour
- PC — 150 to 350 watts/hour
The study also compared typical hardware refresh cycles:
- Thin client — 7 years
- PC — 3 to 4 years
Source: Forrester Research, “Green Benefits Put Thin-Client Computing Back on the Desktop Hardware Agenda” (2008)