Thinking thin

3rd January 2003 at 00:00
Twenty years ago, a few schools started to introduce networks to enable expensive technology to be shared. Today they're used more to share information, applications and ideas among staff and pupils and to track student activity and achievement. This shift from sharing technology to supporting learning and administration has been gradual and, while there are no revolutions, network products at each BETT show take another step forward.

RM will have its usual major presence at BETT, showcasing its Community Connect 3.1, the latest version of its networking product for schools and colleges. Again, there are no revolutions with Connect, but new features include version 2 of RM Tutor, which allows the teacher to monitor, demonstrate and control a number of pupil workstations in the classroom simultaneously. Other new features include "pass the chalk" - enabling a student workstation to control a demonstration - and audio conferencing. The teacher can also monitor the class with thumbnail views of students'


In network management, RM's Application Wizard simplifies the processes of adding new applications software and the way it's shared with users and groups. The management console has also been improved. Community Connect 3.1 also enables mobile devices such as laptops and RM's new tablet PC to be managed and the increased bandwidth available (RM now uses 54Mbitssecond wireless; see page 71) allows greater network integration. All of these are welcome improvements.

But what looks like it will really take off in 2003 is server-based computing, aka "thin client networks". Citrix is the current leader with Metaframe, which has been around for some time. It's now available in the XP version which delivers the latest Microsoft applications to thin devices (such as terminals and older PCs).

Essentially, thin client networks run applications on the server not the local machine - the only things sent across the network are key presses and mouse clicks from the client and the screens are returned by the server. Basing applications on the server allows greater control and easier management for the network manager - upgrades only need to be done at the server.

Generally, thin client networks don't require their users to have as much bandwidth since only screens and clicks are transmitted. Applications can also be run remotely more easily, as on a LAN (local area network).

As the world becomes more web-focused, most information and transactions are delivered through web pages. Competent computer users have no difficulty with the desktop metaphor, but for amateurs it's not that obvious. For them, the simplicity of clicking a hot spot on a web page is much more obvious than a desktop cluttered with files, applications and folders and it's not a massive leap to ask why we don't drop the Windows desktop and all deliver applications through a web page.

This is exactly what Citrix has done with NFuse Elite, a "portal out of a box" that provides a one-stop screen for information and applications. The portal delivers information, transactions and applications through the web - applications such as Word just appear as an icon on the home page alongside key information about the school or college. Nfuse also provides an easy way for schools and colleges to move to a portal as the single gateway to all their information systems.

Adtcom is the new kid on the block with thin client software and its New Moon Canaveral iQ enables central deployment of applications software. Canaveral provides for control and management of server-based Windows applications such as Word and is relatively simple and cost effective to use.

Canaveral iQ is direct competition for Citrix, providing web-enabled applications on the LAN and via remote access. And although it doesn't go as far as an out-of-the-box portal, it is much more competitively priced than other thin client systems.

One issue with thin client networks is that they need a powerful cluster of servers, but they will work with older desktop hardware and offer the promise of working with a wide range of "thin" devices (ie those lacking in processor power and memory) - for example, Hewlett Packard. The Compaq arm, pre-merger, has long been supplying thin client devices and server farms as part of its Evo range.

Better still, thin client devices are cheaper and smaller than fully featured PCs, reducing the total cost of ownership of the network over time - or at least that's the theory. It all sounds too good to be true - simpler, cheaper computing more amenable to remote access. The key element is the network server-based computing demands a reliable network. After all, when the network's down so is your computer.

Les Watson is pro vice-chancellor at Glasgow Caledonian University

Community Connect 3.1. Contact RM for package prices. RM. BETT stand D50, E50. Tel: 01235 826000.

NFuse Elite. Price: $67 (pound;43) per user.

Citrix. Tel: 01753 276200.

New Moon Canaveral iQ. Adtcom Network Computing. Price: approx pound;94 per user. Tel: 08708 504050.

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