The future is green, open source and Nintendo

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My main interest has always been the use of Open Source thin-client solutions in an educational context. Its worth stating, again, what is really the blindingly obvious - thin-client work stations use one twentieth of the power of a typical PC (10-20 watts versus 200-400 watts), require no maintenance or technical per-machine support and Open Source software is free of licence costs.

Thin-client networks should be 'no-brainers' for schools trying to meet carbon targets, giving value for money and eking out scant human resources.

Needless to say thin-client deployments in schools are as rare as hen's teeth!

But thin-client solutions just will not go away, and for good reason, it's just that it is very hard to dislodge the incumbent fat boy PC and their fatter still vendors.

Cries of the death of the PC are frequent and always come to nothing. The only major vendor who has doggedly beaten the thin-client drum is Sun Microsystems with their SunRay workstations.

Microsoft's RDP thin-client servers are admittedly ubiquitous but invariably they are used as remote (expensively licenced) add-ons to a conventional PC network.

The big software vendors fear loss of revenue from diskless low power work stations. Sun's premium 'blue chip' pricing hardly encourages new customers and MS fear the loss of revenue from their per PC licencing.

In other words the market for thin-clients is repeatedly announced and then killed by the interests of corporate business models.

How thin-clients will change education (really)

You can't keep a good concept down however and there was a inevitability that the Open Source community would be at the cutting edge of innovations in this area.

However let's deal with recent hardware developments first as these impact on the whole scene:

Thin-client Laptops

Even 18 months ago it was a difficult search to find thin-client laptops and notebooks. Today this market is overflowing with offers. Wyse, Lenovo, Comet and even Dell (supplied if not branded) offer disk-less wireless notebooks for businesses and schools. The compelling sales pitch is that these devices contain no persistent data that can be left in the taxi or lost in the T5 baggage handling void.

In other words serial data loss incompetence and the fear of future losses from public services, school databases and others has driven a huge change from the PC Laptop. This alone may ensure the rise of the thin-client solution.

Of course the data and applications for these notebooks has to be stored and supplied by a thin-client server. We will deal with this later.

Cost

It is a while now since highly specified thin-client terminals with decent graphics broke the £99 barrier and became available with power consumptions below 10watts. This trend shows no sign of abating as Intel Atom chip is released and commodity hardware costs fall. £50 and 4 watts should be all an office needs for its everyday work station. As we said above this should be a no-brainer set against a £400 PC with 400 power packs and per seat licences.

Gaming Consoles

Gaming consoles are very much overlooked technologies for those of a certain age. Computer games are played on high spec PC's, MS XBox, Sony's PS3 and Nintendo's Wii. PC's Xboxes and PS3's all use much the same power; 200 watts or so when gaming, 1-2 watts on standby. The tiny Wii however uses 10 watts when gaming and 1-2 watts on standby.

The Wii, which is currently the best selling console, is very much a graphics-competent web-facing thin-client. Opera indeed produced and support a version of its browser just for the Wii. This means that, in effect, regarding Web2 applications the Wii is a modern thin-client for everyone.

Forget 17" monitors and think HD TV instead. From a educationalists point-of-view there are some very interesting downstream consequences of this development, more of that at the end of this post.

Server Software

Thin client hardware is, of course, nothing without server-side software. In the world of Microsoft we are well used to the ageing RDP server and in the Open Source world we have the Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP).

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