Forget the OLPC: Here's a 30-children-per-desktop solution

Consider the similarity between Angelina Jolie and the One Laptop Per Child project.

Users agree.

"Traditional thin clients require some knowledge of Linux or Unix. We were looking for something more user-friendly," said Barry Pace, technology director for the McDowell County Public School District, which used NComputing to add 1,000 additional workstations in 11 schools. "[NComputing] is more elegant. The wiring and everything is set up more cleanly. That made it feasible for us."

"The simple, appliance-like nature of this solution really reduces the need for training," said Scott Smith, director of instructional technology for the Visalia Unified School District. The district has been conducting an NComputing pilot with one 30-student classroom for about a year and plans a larger rollout.

Brian Madden, a thin-client market analyst, said that ease-of-use could be a killer feature.

"If NComputing offers something that literally involves taking a couple of PCs and snapping them together like a stereo system, that could be huge," he said.

NComputing sells two basic types of devices. The L series uses Ethernet to support up to 10 users connected to a Windows XP PC, and up to 30 users connected to a PC running Linux or Windows Server 2003. The more popular X series device can connect between four to seven users to the host PC.

The limits of performance

Increasing the ratio of users per PC lowers the cost per student. Moreover, it means fewer PCs that can potentially crash (though, of course, every crash potentially affects more students).

The question is whether the traditional knock against thin clients holds with NComputing: As you add more users, especially those doing CPU-intensive things such as playing games or watching videos, will performance degrade?

Neither Smith nor Pace has tested the L series devices. But their view of how many users the X series device can support differed.

"When we tried connecting five to six students to a PC, we found the performance was at some level degraded," said Visalia's Smith. He also noted that if one student's application hangs or crashes, that causes all of the other students connected to that PC to freeze or crash, too. He prefers connecting just four students to a PC.

For Pace, on the other hand, connecting seven students to a single PC -- the district is using new Gateway (now MPC) 4610 desktops with 3.2-GHz single-core CPUs -- is working fine.

"If the CPU is maxed out, sometimes it takes several seconds for students to save a file," he said. "But it's really not a big issue."

The bigger problem, Pace discovered, is that, like the children that use it, NComputing isn't always great at sharing. Some popular but resource-intensive software such as Math Blaster and Google Earth couldn't be opened by more than one student on a PC. Also, at least one peripheral, a Bluetooth wireless tablet for teachers called the InterWrite SchoolPad, didn't work properly.

Pace was able to figure out some work-arounds, such as installing an application multiple times. And NComputing's engineers have been working with him to fix the problems. But he said: "You have to go into this knowing there are some limitations."

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