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 He bought 60 new PCs, got rid of more than 400 outdated computers and upgraded some of the others.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.
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 Galt Joint Elementary School District in Galt, Calif., took a demo Xtenda unit in early 2006 and then, during the summer, ordered and installed approximately 40 to meet the needs of two of the district's schools. The goal was to standardize one school's Windows PCs by replacing 50 aging Apple Macintosh computers. The district replaced 50 older computers at a second school.
"We were up against trying to purchase a whole new system for each, a one-to-one replacement," Do said, explaining that the new systems he had in mind cost $1,500 apiece, so buying four would have cost $6,000. But buying one new computer and an Xtenda unit cost about $1,750.
Do also bought new monitors, mice and keyboards for the Multi Boxes, but the total price tag for four workstations was still less than half the cost of four new computers, he said. Just to be on the safe side, Galt district bought a separate license for each desktop for the Windows operating system as well as Microsoft Word.
"I'm not sure if we absolutely had to do it," Do said, noting that licenses for other applications allow them to run across the district's entire network.
Orangeburg's agreement with Microsoft allowed the district to buy remote-station-access licenses for Windows for the dumb terminals, Johnson said. For most of the district's applications, licenses are based on the number of user seats, rather than the number of CPUs, so it doesn't matter whether students are sitting at terminals or PCs.
Besides saving money on the hardware, Johnson and Do said the Xtenda units reduce labor since only the host computer needs technical attention -- the dumb terminals require no maintenance. In Orangeburg, four technicians work on computer and telecommunications technology across the district.
"Now they can spend more of their time doing preventive maintenance rather than constantly focusing on corrective maintenance," Johnson said.
If only one in every four desktops sports an actual computer instead of a dumb terminal, that means fewer opportunities for breakdowns, Do said, also acknowledging that there's a flip side of having to rely on the viability of one computer
"If one goes down," he said, "the other three can't connect."
An additional benefit the dumb terminals provide, Dukker said, is that they're invulnerable to security breaches. Unlike a thin client machine, an Xtenda Multi Box has no central processing unit, no memory and no storage.
"It's totally impervious to things like viruses, because you can't put anything in it," Dukker said.
Do plans to show the technology to officials at some of the other schools in the Galt Joint Elementary School District to see if they're interested in using it. He said he hasn't heard of any other school districts near Galt, which is about 30 miles south of Sacramento, Calif., using NComputing's technology.
Technology directors in several districts near Orangeburg plan to evaluate the Xtenda units, Johnson said.
"Some want to visit our site and see what we're doing with them," he said. "It's a bold move, and not everyone is comfortable trying to make such a move. I think a number of them are probably going to at least try some this year and see how they function for them, and then move to a larger number."