NComputing takes thin clients into schools with "classroom in a box"


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The economics behind thin-client computers — machines designed to run primarily off networked computing resources rather than local processors — are starting to get very interesting. NComputing is proving that today with three announcements that show considerable progress in the market for these devices. The Silicon Valley startup is well on its way toward driving the costs of computing toward zero, democratizing computer hardware by making it accessible to a much wider net of people.

NComputing has sold millions of desktops that use its virtualization software, which allows 10 or so users with their own monitors and keyboards to share a single PC, much like the old time-sharing terminals which spread access to mainframe computers. Today, the company is revealing a campaign called “Classroom in a Box” which makes it easy for distributors such as CDW to deploy virtualized desktops in classrooms.

NComputing is also announcing that Fujitsu Siemens, the largest PC company in Europe, will make monitors with NComputing’s technology built into it. And a 64-bit version of Windows virtualization software will allow many more users to share each PC. These developments will keep NComputing on the growth path in the coming months, said Stephen Dukker, chief executive of Redwood City, Calif.-based NComputing, in an interview.

“We’re rewriting computer lab economics,” Dukker said.

Last year, the company debuted the L300, a little box that connects to a standard Windows computer and uses that PC as a server, allowing a bunch of users to share one computer through NComputing’s distributed computing software. The box, in turn, is connected to a keyboard, mouse and monitor. Such devices are sometimes called “thin clients” — though in the age of netbooks and cloud computing, that seems like a dated term. The client taps the computing power of the PC, just like old terminals shared a slice of the computing power of a mainframe computer decades ago. With the L300, as many as eight clients can share a $700 PC. Each one of those clients can simultaneously run a 1080p high-definition video, and each client uses a few watts of power, far less than a stand-alone PC.

With Classroom in a Box, NComputing packages everything a school computer lab needs to set up virtual desktops running the company’s vSpace virtualization software. It has all the hardware, peripherals, operating system, and services that a school needs to set up a computer lab that uses 90 percent less energy and costs 75 percent less in maintenance and support costs compared to a PC lab, according to NComputing. The labs can be set up to have anywhere from one user to 30 users per virtualized desktop PC, using either Linux or Windows.

The machines are less vulnerable to damage, loss or theft because all of the critical data resides in the desktop, not in the individual monitors, which serve as dumb terminals. NComputing estimates it has about 15 percent of the school market throughout the U.S., and this new Classroom in a Box campaign will help cement that. Worldwide, NComputing is supplying Macedonia schools with 200,000 NComputing devices and it is providing devices for 18,000 schools in India.

NComputing is also announcing that it will debut a 64-bit version of vSpace that runs on Windows. That means NComputing will be able to tap much beefier PCs and servers to power thin clients. Dukker (pictured) isn’t sure exactly how many thin clients can run on the 64-bit version, but it could be thousands of users sharing a single 64-bit server farm (which consists of a bunch of computers), he said. As server technology improves, NComputing can keep on adding more users per server.

Meanwhile, Fujitsu Technology Solutions will join LG as a major computer maker selling NComputing-based monitors. The Japanese company will use NComputing’s software and Numo chip to create monitors that serve as thin clients. Such devices will likely start cutting into PC sales, as it means that enterprise customers only have to buy monitors and keyboards, rather than full PCs, for the work place. The same cost and energy savings that can be achieved in schools will also apply to the enterprise, Dukker said. Fujitsu is now shipping the NComputing-based L300-like clients in volumes. In corporate markets, potential customers range from small branch offices to large corporations.

Dukker said more computer makers will start shipping NComputing-based thin clients in the coming months. Dukker said his company is shipping tens of thousands of NComputing machines per month.

“We going deeper into education and we’re broadening beyond that market into the commercial space,” Dukker said. “This is wonderful validation.”

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