There's one tiny problem with personal computers: They keep getting better.

New software demands more processing power, hardware developers oblige with new machines, and before you know it, last year's top-of-the-line PC is this year's antique. That's why organizations set up regular cycles for upgrading or replacing PCs.

For cash-strapped public schools, however, that's not necessarily an easy task.

Case in point: Orangeburg Consolidated School District Four in Orangeburg County, S.C. As of last summer, Randy Johnson, the district's director of technology, was responsible for 1,600 PCs used in classrooms and administrative offices across nine buildings. About 1,000 of those machines were too old to run all the software the schools needed.

Normally Johnson would have bought 1,000 new computers. But instead, he bought 250 Xtenda packages, a product that allows one PC to support up to three dumb terminal workstations. He bought 60 new PCs, got rid of more than 400 outdated computers and upgraded some of the others. Today, the district has more workstations than before, including 1,000 that are up to the latest standards.

"All it cost us was the price of the Xtenda cards, which was about $50,000, and the cost of 60 new computers, which was about $48,000," Johnson said of taking that route instead of buying all new computers. "We probably saved half a million dollars."

The Xtenda is one of several network computing products that NComputing of Redwood City, Calif., markets to schools and other organizations that need numerous computers but aren't swimming in cash.

It consists of a PCI installed in any personal computer running a Microsoft Windows or Linux operating system, plus three "Xtenda Multi Boxes" that connect to the card via network cables. Each box, about the size of a pack of playing cards, contains ports for connecting a monitor, keyboard and mouse.

Wasted Power

Software that comes with the package allows a PC to act as a server for three dumb terminals, said Stephen Dukker, chairman and CEO of NComputing, adding that in creating the Xtenda, the company exploited the fact that most applications use only a fraction of a PC's resources.

"For normal usages of computers," Dukker said, "these things have become so immensely powerful that they're being wasted."

A user can install as many as two Xtenda cards in a PC, creating up to six extra workstations. The dumb terminals must sit within 30 feet of the PC, but that configuration is fine in classrooms or work clusters, Dukker said.

Another product line, the L Series, is based on an Ethernet card that's installed in the PC and runs over a local area network. Though the Xtenda works on low-end PCs available for as little as $350, the L Series requires a more powerful computer -- something in the $1,000 range, Dukker said. The L Series also costs more -- about $200 per desktop, he said, but it allows one PC to support as many as 30 dumb terminals with no distance limitation.

Dukker said the company has sold 10,000 seats worth of its units to schools in North Carolina. The company specifically targeted smaller, more cost-sensitive schools, and districts that lacked sophisticated IT organizations, he said.

However, more recently the company has pursued larger school districts.

Johnson tested five Xtenda units in summer 2006 before making his purchase. The Xtenda technology saves his district money up front, he said.

"The ongoing saving is going to be tremendous, as long as it continues to perform as it's doing right now," he said. In the future, when the district needs even more computing power, it will have to upgrade only the PCs, not the dumb terminals they serve. "You just upgrade one [computer], and all four are working at the same level."

Minh Do, technology coordinator of the

Merrill Douglas  |  Contributing Writer