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Keeping it thin

Les Watson looks over the installation of a thin-client network at Hobbs Hill Wood School

The world of the thin client - relatively cheap "dumb terminals" connected to a PC server - moves on. In the BETT Online (January 3), I described the options for thin-client or server-based computing. Both options, Citrix Metaframe and New Moon Canaveral IQ,, provide software that enable thin-client machines to deliver high-resolution graphics and sound to the desktop but also mean additional software costs - and quite high ones too.

However, Microsoft has improved its software offering and renamed it Windows Server 2003.

The first implementation of this software update in a UK primary school is at Hobbs Hill Wood School in Hemel Hempstead. The new 35-seat computer room using Microsoft's latest terminal software has been installed by Leverstock Associates. The enhanced facilities in the new software are essential for effective use of IT in primary schools where so much educational software relies on high-resolution graphics and sound.

The thin-client machines installed at Hobbs Hill are manufactured by Wyse and connect to a server farm providing file handling and printing services.

As Microsoft provides the thin-client software at educational prices the overall software package is very cost effective. Leverstock reckons that an equivalent thin client running Windows 2000 and Citrix Metaframe XP would add some pound;10,000 to the total cost of an installation for 60 concurrent users.

The system at Hobbs Hill also includes a support package. Normally this is second line support to the ICT co-ordinator, but if there is a need then occasional first line support is provided at no extra cost. The arrangement between the school and Leverstock is based around a partnership approach that relies on clear understanding of needs and provision of services, rather than systems that the school then has to take responsibility for.

This "service" approach to the supply of ICT in schools is highly relevant to primary schools in particular.

Before the thin-client network was installed Hobbs Hill had stand-alone PCs with no central server. These suffered from the usual cycle of hardware and software faults and were not always easy to fix - the high-frustration computing environment that many schools are used to. The new network has load-balanced servers so in the event of failure most services can continue - the school has opted to reduce costs and has not purchased a fully fault-tolerant system, but does have best of breed server hardware from HPCompaq and also has on-site support.

All the benefits of thin-client computing apply here too of course. Not only is this a cost-effective solution, but as the thin-client devices have no fans the computer room is now very quiet, which makes class teaching easier than in the equivalent noisy computer room. In addition, the machines have long-term value as they don't have to do much processing and don't need to be replaced as often, plus they won't get stolen as they are no use unless connected to the network. And to top it all off, thin-client devices don't take up as much desk space as a those big grey boxes called PCs.

Leverstock Tel. 0870 7874800

Les Watson is pro vice-chancellor at Glasgow Caledonian University

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