NComputing X350 = classroom labs in a snap

NComputing X350 = classroom labs in a snap

Summary: You know the story: times are tight, do more with less, make 1:1 happen with less money, etc., etc.


You know the story: times are tight, do more with less, make 1:1 happen with less money, etc., etc. At the beginning of the month, I wrote about relatively inexpensive computer sharing and desktop virtualization solutions. Since then, I've been putting one of the least expensive computer sharing solutions (the NComputing X350) through its paces and it would certainly be my solution of choice for a classroom-based lab.

This picture from Microsoft (actually used to depict a use case of their Multipoint Server product) is probably my favorite example of the sort of technology-rich classroom I want to provide for kids in my district. While we actually have 3-4 computers in every room, most are aging desktops, eMacs, and iMacs. Newer machines are reserved for computer labs that see very heavy utilization. Invariably, the machines are crammed into the back of a room or a corner where we can find space and cobble together network drops and miniswitches.

An environment that invites kids to work together and with their instructors, however, is easily achieved with 1) modern schools with plenty of space for centers and micromobility and 2) desktop sharing devices like the X350.

I didn't have a decent desktop sitting around waiting to be used for my own experiments, so I salvaged an old server (we're talking Windows 2000 here) on which the RAID had died, tossed in a spare IDE hard drive, and installed Windows XP Pro, the X-350 PCI card that provides fast Ethernet connections to 3 virtual clients, and the NComputing VSpace virtualization software.

As I noted, this was not a high-end machine, circa 2002. Dual single-core Xeons running at 1.8GHz, a gig of RAM, and a single 160MB IDE hard drive. Everything installed quickly and the VSpace software provides a very simple wizard-based setup. By far, the longest part of the process was waiting for XP to install. I could have used Linux, by the way, since NComputing supports most major distros, but I actually needed a Windows environment on my desktop for testing and AD integration and I wanted to see how some Windows-based software ran sharing the limited resources of the server.

Guess what? It works really well. The server itself acts as a workstation and while the X350 supports (and ships with) 3 clients, I was only able to have 3 workstations functioning simultaneously with acceptable performance. By acceptable, I'm talking cheap netbook performance. Web browsing was no problem, RTI software ran fairly well, and only Office 2010 would make me wish for a higher-powered desktop.

Watching the task manager, though, made it abundantly clear that RAM was the only issue. Hitting the page file repeatedly makes for some chugging. On a new desktop with 4GB of RAM and a decent dual core processor, Windows 7 virtualization or Ubuntu with a light desktop manager would provide very good performance for most activities.

One thing to note is that the NComputing X-series card provides graphics capabilities in line with most integrated chipsets. The available resolutions on the server wouldn't support my wide-screen monitor, but the graphics integrated in the card had no problems. We're not playing Crysis here, by any means, but this is a solid setup for a learning or classroom environment.

So why not do this for larger deployments or labs? The X550 supports 6 total stations including the host which would be an average row in a lab, after all. Because for larger deployments I want the virtual desktop images managed centrally. I don't want to manage what amounts to 5 servers in a 30-seat lab. In a classroom, however, I can train and empower a teacher to manage his or her own "server" upon which I can impose my own layer of management via Active Directory or some other LDAP structure.

NComputing, by the way, is sending me one of their U-series devices that supports up to 10 USB-connected stations. I'm thinking libraries for a use case. They also provided me with an L-series device that supports up to 30 clients connected to a single server via an Ethernet switch. This will need to wait for a summer head-to-head with more traditional VDI when I can pull a couple terminal servers for testing.

The bottom line, however, is that if you aren't running CAD or doing video editing, the X-series provides an extremely cost-effective way to build high-quality classroom and media center facilities with little knowledge of the technical details of virtualization.

Topics: Servers, Hardware, Networking, Operating Systems, Software, Ubuntu, Virtualization, Windows

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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  • But..

    I have found that these systems are sometimes very limited, for example, did each workstation have sound wired in, how about usb ports?

    As for a lab of them, virtually useless to me, they don't have the power my students use.
    • Yes...

      Each station has its own sound. The power of each
      station is directly dependent on the power of the
      host station, but because it is a remote session,
      some things will not work, like Windows MovieMaker
      (which is never allowed to run over a remote
      Adam S
      • RE: NComputing X350 = classroom labs in a snap

        @Adam S
        I am a computer teacher. In my IT Lab my students tried to use window movie maker. But due to Ncomputing system installed in my lab, window movie maker is only acceccable to one user and on rest user PC'S it is not working. Do you have any suggession for any other alternative?
  • RE: NComputing X350

    I've used ncomputing devices for several years. We have 25 classroom pods based upon x300 and x350 units. The library has 3 x550 machines running 4 clients each. There's been issues with Microsoft updates and USB memory sticks but overall, given the low cost and economic times we plan to upgrade most of our labs with ncomuting devices. I'm waiting to receive the new usb units and look forward to further improvements.
  • But what about the fine print

    From the ncomputing site:

    "Multiple Users on a Single OS Requires Microsoft Windows Server Licensing. For applications where multiple interactive users are simultaneously sharing a single operating system, standard Microsoft Windows Server licensing applies. This means that the shared host computer (or virtual machine) runs a Microsoft Windows Server operating system.

    In addition a Microsoft Windows Server Client Access License (WS CAL) and a Microsoft Remote Desktop Services Client Access License (RDS CAL ? formerly known as a Microsoft Terminal Services Client Access License or TS CAL) are required for each end-user or device that accesses Windows Server.

    Also, Microsoft's new Windows Multipoint Server 2010* can be used and requires a Windows MultiPoint Server 2010 CAL (WMS CAL) for each access device (and for the host computer if the host computer is used as a user station).** The diagram at right shows an example configuration with five users sharing a single computer running Windows MultiPoint Server 2010".
  • RE: NComputing X350 = classroom labs in a snap

    We are currently using NComputing in our PC lab with 4 Hosts for a total of 28 usable station's. We have also rolled out NComputing in our Middle School classrooms, as well as, our Media Center/Library (1 Host, and 8 Stations). Aside from a few update problems, it has been an inexpensive way for our school to implement multiple computers in the classrooms.
  • Certain apps will max out NComputing

    I agree with the fine print comment. The actual cost of Ncomputing is at least $100 more per seat (not set up) due to licensing considerations. Also, certain applications (e.g., Inspiration) were maxing out the Ncomputing causing it to freeze. We had to had buy more memory for the main machine, another $50.
    • Edu licensing

      Note that for schools, the licensing costs are
      much lower - they only amount to <$25 per seat for
      access licenses and about $100 for the Windows
      server OS on the host machine. Schools should
      make sure they take advantage of these academic
      versions through MS's Open and Select licensing
      programs for education.
  • Hey! with Linux

    I know ncomputing works with Windows, but I have been using and Ubuntu 9.10 with a 8 headed system for 6 months now.

    I believe this to be a cheaper and more straight forward solution.
  • Hey! How about

    I know NComputing works with Windows, but I have been using and Ubuntu 9.10 with a 8 headed system for 6 months now.

    I believe this to be a cheaper and more straight forward solution.

    How about a review of and NO I do not work for them. I am a network engineer at a major university.
  • RE: NComputing X350 = classroom labs in a snap

    Recently I installed the X550 into a Junior school I work in. We have 3 powerful machines (Quad Core, 4GB RAM), each machine has 2 x X5550 cards installed, leaning to a theoretical 33 users in the room. Due to space restrictions it has worked out that 1 of the machines has 9 possible users, 1 has 10 and the 3rd has 11 giving a total of 30 concurrent users.

    I was sceptical of the system, but the demo worked well, and the install was easy enough.

    To implement the new systems meant a change in how the pupils were used to using the schools computers, which was a worry, but the swap-over was relatively seemless.

    After I had finished installing the systems and was on the way out to another school, a class filed in and so the next week I went in was expecting the worst. Expected problems with apps missing or not working, speed issues, access issues etc.

    Thus far, aside from a couple of glitches, which were my fault and would have occured anyways if these were single machines, there have been no problems with software or access speeds etc. In fact everyone is very pleased with the systems.

    We have managed to setup a 30 user IT Suite for somewhere in the region of ?6000 rather than ?18000, which was a fantastic saving...means we can replace all the projectors now too and still have made a saving! :-)

    As as closing point - These work fine in the Junior School, and am pushing htem for the High School in areas where the basics are used such as office apps, internet etc. Well aware that they won't be sufficient in our main computer rooms due to the apps they use - Dreamweaver, Photoshop etc. But still, a reasonably inexpensive way to replace the old equipment approaching 6 /7 years old!
  • XP? Tsk, tsk. Support for several Linux distros?

    You're not allowed to use virtual desktop solutions on
    XP. The XP license does not allow for more than one
    concurrent user. NComputing got nabbed a couple of years
    ago for this and now you need to be using Server.

    The support for more than Ubuntu and OpenSUSE is news to
    me. Which other "major" distributions do they support
    Adam S
    • XP support in certain cases.

      I did some digging:

      Q: Can I run Windows XP instead of Windows Server software if I want multiple simultaneous users to access and use the operating system software?
      A: Only under very limited circumstances. If you (the customer) have licensed the appropriate number of Windows Server operating system and associated Client Access Licenses for simultaneous access by multiple users to the Licensed Computer, you may install and run the NComputing vSpace Software on a separately licensed Windows XP Client operating system in lieu of the Windows Server operating system. You may only install and use either the Windows Server operating system software or the Windows XP Client operating system software but not both. Note that while Microsoft allows this limited use of the Windows XP client operating system configuration under these specific circumstances, support for NComputing?s vSpace software running on Windows XP is solely provided by NComputing. Microsoft does not provide any support for NComputing vSpace Software or for the Windows XP Client operating system in this configuration; you should seek support from NComputing for issues relating to the NComputing vSpace Software and its use with the Windows XP Client operating system.
      • Very good

        My vendors were apparently unaware of this
        technicality and therefore so was I. Thank you
        for finding this.
        Adam S
  • RE: NComputing X350 = classroom labs in a snap

    Yes, you do need the proper Microsoft licenses which does increase the cost but it is still less expensive than the same amount of PCs.
  • Ncomputing

    i have applied ncomputing to some of my PCs, but sometimes it fails to work properly to some machines, why this is happening ... i have tried to fixed, such as removing ant-virus, Firewall and others...
  • RE: NComputing X350 = classroom labs in a snap

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    In my IT Lab I was using Netmeeting to teach different software to my students. But due to Ncomputing now Netmeeting is not working. Any one have any suggession for any other alternative?

    In my IT Lab my students tried to use window movie maker. But due to Ncomputing now window movie maker is only acceccable to one user and on rest user PC'S it is not working. Any one have any suggession for any other alternative?