Dr. Scott Barrett, assistant superintendent of technology for Conroe ISD, and Terry McClaugherty, district coordinator of network services, have successfully deployed a thin client solution for the district's 51,000 students.
Mar 03 2011

Classrooms in the Cloud

Schools eye thin clients and cloud computing as a way to reduce costs and ease maintenance.

April 2011 E-newsletter

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The Conroe Independent School District in Conroe, Texas, prides itself on being ahead of the technology curve. The district deployed thin clients in 2011 to save money and reduce maintenance, and today has added cloud computing to the mix.

The district's 51,000 students in 55 schools do most of their work over the Internet. “That's what moved us to our current environment of [Windows] XP Embedded, with what we call web PCs, which are our wireless thin client computers with no moving parts and solid-state hard drives,” says Dr. Scott Barrett, assistant superintendent of technology for Conroe ISD.

The district has a mix of more than 6,000 Lenovo ThinkPad notebooks and HP Compaq 6720t mobile thin clients. Terry McClaugherty, the district's coordinator of network services, says the IT staff stripped out unnecessary software, keeping only the operating system, loaded with Adobe Flash and Reader, e-mail and communications software; and OpenOffice 3.1, a word processing, spreadsheet, database and presentation package.

However, the district uses Google Docs and other Web 2.0 tools more often than OpenOffice. “With this model, there is no need for desktop virtualization nor the associated costs and complexity of back-end servers,” Barrett says.

The software as a service model of cloud computing offers an attractive alternative for K–12 organizations because it requires only a low upfront capital expenditure and can be bought on a subscription basis, says Rebecca Wettemann, vice president of research at Nucleus Research. Wettemann adds that schools deploying cloud computing on thin clients are ahead of the curve. “I can use free or low-cost collaborative tools in a cloud environment, and I don't have to have IT resources in every school.”

Another advantage for school districts that move to the cloud, she says, is having a centralized way to keep track of school records or homework. “Now I no longer have the excuse that ‘my dog ate it' if it's protected on the cloud,” Wettemann says. “Parents are communicating with teachers via e-mail when there is a problem, so putting an application on the cloud extends not just the classroom environment where students are accessing the cloud, but parents also have greater visibility into that environment.”

Computing on a Cart

The web PCs manage themselves, Barrett says. Students can save and download materials to the desktop, but every time the notebooks are rebooted, they return to their original state. “Our students and teachers would rather use our web PCs than go to a lab because they are always guaranteed to work,'' he says, adding that they enjoy the convenience of bringing the lab to the classroom.

One of the biggest hurdles of the deployment was finding a notebook with a battery that would last all day, IT officials say. Battery life was critical because the typical classroom doesn't have much power. “If it only lasted for three hours, that was no good,” Barrett says. “And swapping out batteries was unacceptable, so we found one that would last 10 to 12 hours.”

The web PCs are used in every classroom and are available on carts on a checkout system. Each school has between four and nine carts, and all of the notebooks are configured to a printer on the cart.

IT creates an image of all the software and configurations and stores it on network-attached storage, then the staff uses a custom imaging system to deploy the image to devices, McClaugherty says. 

The thin client deployment has obviated the need for the district to hire additional IT staff. “We are able to spend our budget elsewhere, like upgrading our wireless infrastructure,” Barrett says. 

The only negative of the web PCs? “You better book fast,” McClaugherty says. “There's a high demand for them. We buy as many as we can afford each year, but there's always a need for more.”

Getting Their Feet Wet

Fischer Middle School in Aurora, Ill., has transformed a computer lab into a thin client lab so it can evaluate the technology, says Mark Kreiter, director of instructional technology for the Indian Prairie School District. “We really wanted to test it out to see if it's a viable solution for us going forward.”

About a year ago, the school began using 30 Wyse Technology thin clients and IBM Smart Business Desktop Cloud in the lab for students who need extra help in math. “We started with kids at the lower end, but now we can tailor instruction to meet the needs of [other] students,” Kreiter says.

The school has its own server, and some of its software is subscription-based, so it is not using a true cloud model, he adds. “Because it was our first jump into thin clients with a complicated infrastructure in place, a lot of it was hit or miss at the start, but it's working, and kids are on the computers and aren't aware they're being served some applications from the cloud.”

Kreiter believes Indian Prairie will roll out more thin clients as it upgrades hardware because the devices are affordable and because so much of the software geared at education is migrating to the web. “We're looking at ways to save money but still move forward with technology,” he says. “Thin clients or something along those lines will be part of that.”

Doing More with Less

In rural Pike County Schools in Kentucky, desktop computers were still running Windows 95 and Windows 98 with failing CDs and hard drives, and teachers and students were finding access to the application portal inconsistent. When the district tried to apply the latest antivirus patches, the IT staff discovered the machines couldn't be updated, says Maritta Horne, CIO and director of technology of the district in Pikeville.

Pike County's total cost of ownership per desktop over five years using IBM's Smart Business Desktop Cloud, versus $2,948 using a typical PC deployment

The school board decided to deploy IBM Smart Business Desktop Cloud, and students can now boot the existing hardware with a CD that bypasses the operating system and connects them instead to a virtual client environment. PCs are refreshed every 10 years, and in the meantime, the older machines can still be used, Horne says. Approximately 1,600 machines out of 6,000 are now in the virtual cloud environment.

“With this model, anywhere a child is, logging in to any machine, regardless of whether it's old or new, they see the same environment – it doesn't matter,” says Horne.

The district projects a cost savings of about 62 percent over five years, compared with the cost of servicing the desktops on the premises. When two IT workers retired, Horne says she didn't need to replace them.

She estimates that within five years Pike County will have a 100-percent virtualized environment. “The technology has improved to the point where it's easier to virtualize than work with maintenance issues when setting up new machines because we image everything,” Horne says. “This is one real example of an initiative that works.”

Phoebe Rourke-Ghabriel