Diskless clients and open source software saving energy & hundreds of thousands of dollars

The challenge districts are now facing is how to provide cost-effective, relevant, current, sustainable, environmentally conscious and ubiquitous access to resources that work for today's educational outcomes and simultaneously anticipate the future. School district technology plans are usually developed around a three to five year cycle to anticipate funding, resourcing, planning, implementation and professional development opportunities. Over the past eight to ten years, the current and most pervasive computing model is to provide schools with three year old, off-lease, Microsoft Windows XP-based desktop computers. These computers typically stay in the school environment until they are completely obsolescent.

By March 2012 the Saanch School District will have completed a very ambitious 3 year education technology project. Over 2500 aging Microsoft Windows-based workstations will have been replaced by diskless (thin) clients using Linux and primarily open source software. The reasons for this are many and can briefly be summarized as follows:

  • reduce maintenance
  • reduce support
  • reduce capital costs
  • reduce energy costs
  • smaller footprint requiring less physical space
  • provide standardization and consistency
  • lighter
  • quieter
  • consume less energy
  • require less heating and cooling
  • reduce the CO2 and GHG emissions
  • produce less e-waste
  • require an appreciably smaller environmental footprint

The model the Saanich school district has chosen to implement has resulted in true ubiquitous computing where students and teachers gain secure access to their desktop environments from any client within the school, from home or anywhere they have an internet connection. The software being utilized is a hybrid of primarily open source software, such as Linux (Ubuntu), Firefox, OpenOffice, Scribus and so forth, while provisioning for proprietary software where required (i.e. Kurzweil, SMART Notebook software, etc). This has resulted in an annual savings of over $32,000 which will accumulate year after year.

Significant savings are also being realized in the energy savings of these clients. As they are low-power, requiring no hard drives or CD-ROMs they use smaller power supplies. Additionally, they can be fully managed to shut-down and startup on a scheduled basis. BC Hydro has recently completed an audit which shows that the combination of energy efficient power supplies and fully managed clients results in over 70% energy savings over traditional MS Windows-based systems The Saanich school district now shows saving over 1gWHr/year for an energy savings of over $75,000 per year which will accumulate year after year.

The clients themselves have a longer expected life cycle (up to 8 years) and cost significantly less new than traditional MS Windows-based computers. If the typical cost of a new MS Windows-based computer is approximately $500/unit the cost of a Linux diskless client is $250/unit including 2Gb RAM, mouse and keyboard.

With all of the above savings it is easy to see how the accumulative savings of using a Linux diskless client system compares with the traditional model using MS Windows-based PCs.

The graphic below shows the significant costs savings over a period of 10 years. As can be seen, Saanich would have spent approximately $2.1 million for our schools over a 10 year implementation. By using diskless clients having an extended life, greatly reduced energy costs, and open source software - the cost of our thin client implementation will be approximately $410,000 by comparison.

These are savings which result in the ability of the district to put more emphasis on professional development and training, provide programming and development resources to make our systems better, spend less time on maintenance and much less time on costly repairs and downtime. The clients are adminstered centrally and it is now possible to update an entire school including operating sytems upgrades, menu changes, upgraded sofware and additional software in less than an hour.

We would welcome a discussion on the efficacy of this technology for use in schools throughout British Columbia. It is not only pragmatic but a big step forward towards ubiquitous access for our students.

A detailed technical analysis of our Linux diskless clients is also available online.

gregg ferrie
IT Director for Saanich Schools
Twitter: @gferrie