Relearning the economics of PCs

11/19/2010  |  JIM McHUGH
IT budgets

Even in the best of times, IT budgets for schools are limited and erratic. Although tough, in good budget years, funding for computer labs and educational software upgrades can be found; in bad years, however, it is almost impossible to factor in. It is news to no-one that the recent economic downturn has placed funding pressure on schools like never before — with a direct hit on IT capital and maintenance budgets. Even districts that have limited capital funds, are concerned about long term funding to sustain technology expansion and upgrades. Adding more pressure to the ever tighter purse strings is the March survey findings of AASA conducted on 453 school administrators throughout the US that forecast school districts’ economic situation does not mimic the recovery beginning to take hold nationwide. In fact, it highlights a continued erosion of fiscal resources available to school districts and suggests that, across the board, school budget cuts are noticeably more significant for 2010-11 than they were in 2008-09 or 2009-10.

Against this backdrop of potentially crippling budget and resource constraints, school districts, principals and teachers throughout the US remained committed to increasing the IT learning experience and its role in the classroom. There are some rays of light and helping hands though. One comes in the form of an emerging technology, lead by US technology company NComputing, called desktop virtualization.

The concept behind virtual desktops is simple: today’s PCs are so powerful that most people only use a small fraction of its power. Desktop virtualization enables a single PC to be “virtualized” (or shared) by many users — with each user getting his/her own computing session. Depending on the configuration, a single PC can host from two to 30 simultaneous users. The low entry and ongoing costs of this approach to desktop computing access is, quite literally, turning the old economics of PC purchasing and maintenance on its head. NComputing’s desktop computing devices are in use in over 20,000 schools giving IT access to over 12 million students around the world. The examples are transformational.

A three year partnership between the company and the Government of Macedonia has resulted in IT access to some 200,000 students, delivering against the government’s vision of one computer for every student. In the Bihar region of India, one of the most populous in the country, but where almost 60 percent of the population are under age 25, much of its future lies in the next generation of educated and ICT aware students. The regional government is rolling out an initiative leveraging desktop virtualization which will give technology access and learning to tens of thousands of school children who otherwise would have missed out.

A little closer to home, the Lindsay Park School in British Columbia, Canada replaced 28 old PCs in their computer lab with four Energy Star PCs and desktop access devices to create a quieter, cooler computer lab with a small carbon footprint. As part of the school’s green initiatives project, the students offset the remaining carbon emissions by planting 100 trees. The net result was the first zero carbon-footprint computer lab in Canada and recognition from the British Columbia government. The acquisition, support, and energy savings are tangible, measurable and compelling. In fact, most school districts get a positive return on investment from desktop virtualization in the first year just from the acquisition and energy savings.

The value of this new technology is not only measured in cost savings, increased grade point averages and reduced carbon footprints. Harnessing the minds of children, as any teacher knows, has transformational results, as one school in New Zealand found out when it slashed truancy rates by engaging disinterested students in computers and technology. On a very low budget, the school was able to triple its computer access by deploying desktop virtualization. With the school able to provide one computer for every two students, students showed much more interest in class work and after class activities — contributing to reduced truancy rates from 30 percent to 10 percent.

The most attractive benefits of desktop virtualization come from its low cost of entry, dramatically reduced lifecycle and maintenance costs compared, and vastly reduced energy consumption when compared to traditional PCs. Most schools save around 75 percent on upfront acquisition costs alone. A 30-seat computer lab built using a traditional “all-PC” deployment would cost $21,000 compared to a desktop virtualization model which would cost less than $5,000.

30 Seat Computer Lab Acquisition Cost Comparison

Acquisition cost of an all-PC deployment (30 PCs @ $700 ea.) $21,000

Acquisition cost of a desktop virtualization deployment consists of:

– 3 Host PCs (@ $700 ea.) $2,100

– 27 X-series access devices (@ $70 ea.) $1,890

– 27 keyboards & monitors (@ $15 per set) $405

– 27 additional end-user CAL/TSCAL licenses (@ $20 ea.) $540

Total acquisition cost of a desktop virtualization deployment (including host PCs): $4,935

Dollars saved with desktop virtualization : $16,065

Percentage saved with desktop virtualization: 77 percent

Desktop virtualization not only lowers upfront acquisition costs, but also ongoing support costs such as installation, maintenance and replacement where studies show a 75 percent saving compared to traditional PC environments. Installation time is dramatically reduced because there are far fewer PCs to image and install.

An 11-student classroom can be set up in as little as two hours because only one PC is needed. A 30-seat computer lab can be set up in a day because only three PCs are needed. And, because NComputing access devices only draw between one to five watts of electricity compared to a typical PC which draws 110 watts (or more), schools can save up to 90 percent on electricity costs. As well as important sustainability issues, a 30-seat computer lab, for example, would save $720 per year in electricity cost — an 89 percent reduction compared to an all-PC lab.

Regardless of the financial hardships the education sector faces, the fact remains that IT access and literacy education is a non-negotiable educational requirement. In re-writing the rules of PC economics, desktop virtualization is helping ensure this happens.

Jim McHugh is Senior Vice President, NComputing.

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