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New thin client lab at ECSU

We’ve recently been collaborating with Escape Computing, an Addis-based company specializing in providing thin client and zero client solutions and services. Over the last 2 weeks, our colleague Edu has been over in Ethiopia, with Simon from Escape Computing, to set up a new thin client lab at the Ethiopian Civil Service University. We anticipate this new lab can be used as a showcase/demonstration to other educational institutions looking to provide scalable, cost-efficient and supported computer access for their students. I’ll post up some more of the technical detail of the new lab set-up in the coming days, but for now, here are a few photos of the new lab:




Improving Student Computer Access

Students using new computer labOne of the limiting factors in the success of the elearning training is the availability of open access computer labs for students. Most computer labs, although using relatively recent hardware and operating systems, have few PCs fully functional. Many are crippled due to viruses or broken hardware or many aren’t connected to the network. Most labs have restricted opening hours or no open access at all and are only used as teaching labs.

A network-centric model

Key Facts

  • 2 new computer labs
  • over 80 open access terminals
  • further 70 terminals available soon

To help ensure the success of the elearning programme, Digital Campus set about thinking how computer terminal access for students could be vastly improved and how a cost effective, maintainable and hyper scalable computer architecture could be delivered. For us, the most obvious solution was to use thin client technology with open source software, this has a number of distinct advantages over traditional PC labs:

  • Centralised IT management – with little or no software on the client terminals, the computing capacity and management is focussed within shared, robust, redundant servers in the MU data centres, where all the software configuration and data is stored and maintained
  • More efficient and cost effective use of hardware – with horizontal scaling, old servers can be built into the server cluster to increase capacity. PCs past their useful life for running the latest operating systems can be repurposed to become network booting thin client terminals.
  • Identity management – users have one username and password giving access to the same desktop environment, applications and data which ever terminal they use to log into, even if the terminal is on another campus. So no more sharing of PC admin accounts, or moving files around using flash disks, CDs etc. Centralised user data storage also enables reliable backups to be taken.
  • No software license lock-in – using only open source software, avoids licences costs. Open source software is also far less susceptible to viruses.

This network-centric design isn’t without drawbacks, although a smaller IT support team is required, they need a higher skillset to ensure effective server and network management. Whereas in traditional PC lab environments, the availability and maintenance tasks of desktop PCs is distributed (and often times falls into the hands of the end-user), with network-centric architectures, the lab thin-client functionality depends entirely on the network and server availability maintained by the university ICT staff.

Assessing thin client technologies

The Digital Campus pilot, in designing a network-centric architecture for Mekelle University ,explored several varieties of thin client technologies: Sun Ray ultra-thin clients (mostly used, some devices up to 10 years old), PXE bootable PC’s with a linux kernel for remote desktop access, Sun Ray access client software on recycled PC’s, and LTSP linux stations with recycled PCs. We’re still in the process of assessing which is the most appropriate as a long-term solution.
Installing a new networkAlthough some new hardware was required (mainly the servers) and donated by the project, the majority of the budget is devoted staff training and capacity building with tutors and ICT staff, with the expectation being that existing hardware is reused and the university factors in the cost of new/replacement hardware into it’s existing budgets.

In November 2009, we opened two new computer labs, one for the Technology Institute (39 terminals) at the main university campus and another at the Health Sciences colleges campus (42 terminals). These are supported by 2 OpenSolaris servers, one on each campus to provide failover capabilities. our experiences so far show that these labs have far higher availability than any of the traditional PC labs.

Next steps

The Technology Institute is now in the process of creating a new thin client computer lab with 70 terminals reusing old PC hardware, Digital Campus is supporting the implementation of this, providing training, advice and support. We are also continuing to support the research and development of the appropriate server software and configuration needed to create a hyper-scalable network-centric architecture for the university.

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