Home > Uncategorized > Rich, affordable, green computing for the classroom (and elsewhere)

Rich, affordable, green computing for the classroom (and elsewhere)

Computing technology continues to become more affordable and accessible as the years go by. No longer is it necessary to pay $3,000 for a desktop machine that support rich multimedia software applications capable of supporting interactive teaching and learning experiences. A quick glance at Dell.com reveals that an up-to-date PC can be obtained by the general consumer for somewhere in the neighborhood of $500.00 and would support rich multimedia experiences. However, regardless of the price drops in computing technology over the years, it is not uncommon to find old and outdated computers living within the classrooms, libraries, and computer labs within many of our schools.

For a school, the cost of purchasing and maintaining a single machine goes far beyond the initial purchase price. Typically, school districts employ information technology (IT) departments staffed with full time professionals who work to acquire, install, configure, and maintain the machines that serve the needs of the school population. IT departments embrace practices which allow them to handle these tasks in a much more streamlined and efficient fashion than a typical end user or freelance computer techy. Examples include installing & configuring operating systems and software applications in batch vs. individually using hard disk imaging and deployment techniques or diagnosing and fixing problems remotely via a network connection rather than conducting an on-site visit. Regardless of the tricks and tools of the trade, IT costs can add up very quickly and can present significant challenges to school districts that are on a tight budget. Who isn’t on a tight budget these days?!

For the schools that are on a seriously tight budget, what are their options? How can they offer their students access to and instruction about the technologies that they must become familiar with in order to be knowledgeable and functional citizens of today’s world? I would like to delve into these questions by exploring an alternative to traditional (one computer per workstation) computing known as multiseat computing. Multiseat computing involves utilizing a single computer to serve the needs of multiple users simultaneously. This requires implementing a combination of hardware and software which allows a single desktop computer to be connected to many workstations (each having its own keyboard, mouse, and monitor) and to perform operations requested by all users simultaneously. The desktop computer acts as a server, a shared resource working for many users rather than working for only one user.

The user experience is very much the same as it has been. Upon logging into the operating system from their workstation, users are presented with a personal desktop from which they may launch applications, create & save files, browse the web, print documents, and perform other tasks. The user experience may be tailored to the needs of a specific environment. For example, within a classroom, long term user accounts may be configured to support users’ ability to store their files throughout the school year. Software features allow a teacher to monitor users, access students’ files, grade work, and more. Within a library setting, public user accounts may be configured to automatically purge temporary files and user data upon shutdown to support privacy and simple maintenance. Software features are easy to learn and use regardless of the setting.

Let’s take a quick look at video of two multiseat computing solutions currently available, Windows Multipoint Server and Userful Linux. Currently, there is no Mac OSX based multiseat solution available.

Windows Multipoint Server:

Userful Linux:

There are costs and benefits to each solution which should be evaluated by persons interested in potentially implementing a multiseat solution. Factors to consider when selecting the right solution for your needs include:

  • Hardware requirements
  • Support for hardware (printers, scanners, etc.)
  • Software application support
  • Supported software application feature sets
  • Administrative Requirements
  • Security
  • Cost (hardware, operating system, applications, training, energy)

The benefits are likely purcolating within your mind already. Some benefits of implementing a multiseat solution include:

  • Financial savings (hardware, software, energy, administration, maintenance, e-waste)
  • Computer access & availability to individuals, groups, and orgs who cannot suffice on a 1 machine-per-user model or have limited or no IT support resources
  • Specific benefits to teachers, learners, and other types of users

For more information about the cost and environmental savings, refer to this page provided by Userful Linux which compares a 10 user multiseat setup with a 10 user machine-per-user setup and details the manufacturing savings in terms of electricity, produced CO2, chemicals, and water as well as the yearly usage savings in terms of electricity and produced CO2.

After learning about the benefits and savings of implementing green multiseat computing, it is difficult to understand why so many IT departments have not yet implemented this technology! In many instances, the individual machines that are currently being used by 1 user at a time could be utlized as a multiseat server! If you are a fellow Nazareth student, you might find yourself thinking about this the next time you walk through the library and hear all of those computer fans whirring about, keeping all of those powerful computers running cool while students type their papers using Microsoft Word or browse the web using Firefox. You might consider mentioning multiseat computing to your IT department and encourage them to go green!

Beyond the school and the classroom are many other environments that could stand to benefit from multiseat computing, including offices, recreational centers, internet cafes, and homes. I am currently implementing a Userful Linux multiseat setup for a local church interested in supporting their surrounding community. I am using a donated desktop computer (3-4 years old) and donated monitors, keyboards, and mice to create a 3-4 user (to start) multiseat setup. I will be sure to post the results of the project once we are all setup and running! The actual startup cost per seat for this project will be around $50.00 which the community is very happy about.

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  1. Stephen Ransom
    March 24, 2011 at 7:31 pm

    The technology and concept of “thin clients” has been around for some time now. My first thoughts on this were that they never took off due to insufficient network speeds and network management skills to support such configurations. Network woes are a constant battle within many K-12 districts and buildings. This would just compound it even more. In addition, when one computer goes down, many clients go down with it. At least with dedicated computers, one down = one down.

    I asked my network on Twitter this very question and they expressed the same sentiments. @DrTimony stated that the money being saved is often not worth the headaches caused.

    @skipvia stated “Lack of management expertise, slow networks would be at the top of my list.”

    I think the advancements in cloud computing will eventually make this more appealing for many.

    • March 25, 2011 at 2:55 pm

      I agree with your thought on advancements in cloud computing making client/server computing more appealing to many. I believe that it is only a matter of time before this model becomes more of a standard for a broad range of computer users. Internet connectivity is improving with countries like South Korea leading the way by installing Gigabit infrastructure which will reach every home in the country by the end of 2012 and provide speeds roughly 200 times faster than an average US home currently enjoys. As we advance in this manner, I believe that bottlenecks will diminish and reduce the requirement for computing operations to take place locally.

      The model that I am currently implementing for a local church involves a server and several zero client USB devices. The devices do not maintain their own processor, memory, hard drive, and so forth. Rather, they simply facilitate the computer being connected to many keyboards, mice, monitors, and sound output devices and work with software on the server to facilitate each user’s virtual desktop experience. Management efforts within this implementation are decreased as a result of only one machine needing to be managed and the process being very much the same as it would if the machine were a stand alone workstation. The risk of down time may be increased, as you said, as a result of multiple workstations depending on a single server. Within larger implementations, I believe that this risk could be mitigated with existing IT support operations.

      The expertise required to manage multipoint/multiseat client/server setups is said to be minimal. It of course varies depending on the target environment, operating system used, and other factors. The experience that I have had with setting up and configuring multiseat Linux was very much plug n’ play. I have not experimented with Windows Multipoint Server but have read that the OS may be a fork of Windows Server which leads me to believe that the expertise is likely within our midst. If multipoint computing is not being strongly marketed by companies like Microsoft for various reasons, then it makes more sense as to why we continue to see large numbers of energy hungry desktop computers running all day supporting basic user operations such as office applications, web browsing, and printing.

      Greener computing is an idea that I support. I imagine that organizations such as Nazareth College would support it if it involved an overall reduction in cost, was able to meet their requirements, and benefited the environment. I will reach out to you if I happen to experiment with Windows Multipoint Server and let you know how I felt about the experience.

    • March 25, 2011 at 3:16 pm

      I stumbled upon this video clip showing a Verizon team providing a glimpse into the future of their network infrastructure with a 10G/10G connection. She transfers a 2.3 gig file across the fiber and into a RAMdisk in 4 seconds – pretty neat.

  2. Michele Orcutt
    March 28, 2011 at 5:58 pm

    This concept sounds very interesting. I am not very computer literate but this just makes sense that you could turn one computer into user friendly for several. Is this something that can eventually be done in the home with wireless? Is this how we can get away from having to subscribe to the local cable or phone company in order to have high speed internet in our home? Possibly through our cell phone provider?
    It was the green computing for the classroom(and elsewhere) that caught my attention. Computer technology has come so far in size, portability and capability just in the last decade. I am looking forward to hearing how your multi seat for a local church works out.

    • March 28, 2011 at 7:34 pm

      Michelle, a family could certainly take advantage of implementing this model in their home and save on the cost of computer hardware and energy use. This does not change the way that things work concerning internet access. In summary, it allows one computer to be used by multiple people at the same time with each person having their own unique user experience, as they would if they were using separate computers. The single computer would be connected to internet service such as cable or DSL in the same fashion as usual, via a wireless or wired ethernet connection.

      This type of setup can be configured to facilitate different scenarios within an environment. For example, within a home, parents could setup a machine to support the members of their family, providing each user with their own account so that each person may have control over their desktop experience and files. Within a church or a library, a machine could be setup to support many anonymous public users and perform operations such as automatically deleting temporary, downloaded, and other user files each time a user logs out.

      I will be demonstrating the test setup to the church within the coming weeks. I have done a few tests myself and am very happy with the results. I have tested 3 workstations running simultaneously from a single computer and the performance is great. Eventually, once I capture the results of this project, I may present them to other groups and organizations that stand to benefit from them. In addition to extending opportunities for people to use computers and access the internet, I think that it is interesting to do so within a setting that supports face to face interpersonal connections. When I studied abroad in Paris years ago, the internet cafe was not only a place where people went and did their own thing, but was a social place where people could meet others and engage in conversations.

  3. June 1, 2011 at 2:55 am

    Hope to hear your experience.

  1. May 7, 2012 at 3:43 am

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