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All over the world, schools are facing the same challenge: bringing ICT to students in a cost-effective way. "Each student should have their own laptop/netbook/PC," echoes the mantra, and school budgets groan trying to make ends meet.
One answer could be a new product from Microsoft: MultiPoint Server 2010 (MPS 2010). It is essentially a scaled down version of Windows Server 2008 R2, where MPS allows up to 11 monitors/keyboards/mice to live off one physical PC.
Multi-user environment, engage!
Made possible by advances in CPU power and memory accessibility on x64 systems, it's not hard to see how a relatively inexpensive quad-core system with 6GB or 8GB RAM can provide enough juice for 11 users simultaneously. But wait, says the experienced sys admin — isn't that what Terminal Services is for? Cheap computers that connect to a powerful central system with all processing taking place at the server, and screen updates being streamed to the clients?
Not at all — this system has no computers at the endpoint — just several keyboards, mice and monitors connected to one physical system, called "stations".
MPS 2010 comes in two versions: an OEM version that is sold with pre-built MPS "servers", and a volume licensing (VL) version. Schools with Windows and Active Directory (AD) infrastructure should definitely opt for the latter, as it allows the MPS to join a domain, significantly easing user account administration. With the OEM version, each MPS is essentially its own island, with no centralised user database. Another drawback with the stand-alone approach is that students' documents and files aren't replicated between MultiPoint Servers, which could lead to a lot of confusion.
MPS gives the option of storing user files on the local system, on a separate external hard drive, or on a network drive, with the latter preferred in a multi-MPS scenario.
Installation of MPS is identical to setting up Windows Server 2008 R2, right up until the final phase where MPS offers three modes. Maintenance mode lets you log on and install the latest video and audio drivers (important in a multi-user environment); normal mode gives a desktop ready to do work with; and Associate Stations mode lets you associate each station with MPS. A minor irritant is that you must choose Associate Stations before log in — otherwise you will need to restart the machine.
Schools that have adopted Microsoft's technologies on a wide scale can use the Windows Automated Installation Kit (WAIK) to install MPS. MPS is truly international, since it's localised in 12 languages, with a further 35 language packs available that can be applied to the MultiPoint Server user interface (UI) and the desktop UI that users experience.
Plan your hardware
Each station's keyboard and mouse needs to appear under its own USB Root device in Device Manager, which means that each station's peripherals need to be connected to their own USB hub; it's recommended to use USB hubs with external power supplies. The primary station is the one the teacher will use to configure all the other standard stations and each of those need their own mouse, keyboard and monitor. Mice, keyboards, headphones and USB connected speakers can simply be connected to generic USB hubs, whereas monitors either have to be connected to a graphic port on the actual MultiPoint Server or through USB video devices, also known as multifunction hubs. One example of such a device is the HP MultiSeat t100 Thin Client, which offers two PS/2 ports for mouse and keyboard, microphone and headset sockets, and one VGA port. The connection back to the MPS is through USB.
If you opt for internal graphics cards on the server, this limits the number of monitors that can be supported; most graphics card have two ports and most motherboards only allow installation of two graphics cards, for a total of four stations (with perhaps the exception of ATI's Radeon Eyefinity cards). You can, however, combine internal graphics card ports and external multifunction hubs on the same MPS for a higher number of stations.
Microsoft's guidance for sizing an MPS system varies depending on the number of students and whether they're only using productivity type applications or watching a lot of streaming video/doing video editing. Microsoft says an MPS system with an x64 quad-core CPU and 6GB of memory should handle 11 stations, with a dual-core system and 2GB of RAM suitable for up to four stations.
It takes a little bit of planning to set up a classroom with an MPS system. Each station can be at most 10 metres away from the server, unless powered USB extenders are used. Another popular option in many schools is the use of rolling carts to transport computers from room to room.
Simple to use
MPS offers a simple management console, which is suited to teachers. There are four tabs: System, Desktops, Hardware and Users. While it does provide easy access to the most common tasks, the console is limited. New users can be created, for instance, but when it comes to changing anything (including resetting someone's password), the button simply takes you to the normal Windows Server 2008 console.
This tab tells you very basic information about your MPS system. (Screenshot by Paul Schnackenburg/ZDNet Australia)
On this tab you can see connected desktop sessions and disconnect naughty students. (Screenshot by Paul Schnackenburg/ZDNet Australia)
Some things to watch for in a multi-user scenario are that installing plug-ins into a browser requires everyone to get out of that application, and idle sessions will need to be appropriately configured to disconnect so that the computer can go to sleep at the end of the day. Also useful to keep in mind is the fact that wireless LAN adapters aren't automatically recognised in MPS (or Server 2008 R2); the wireless service has to be installed and configured first.
The hardware tab lets you know what hardware is connected to each station with simple icons. (Screenshot by Paul Schnackenburg/ZDNet Australia)
Other issues you may encounter include programs having trouble with 64-bit Windows, Windows 2008 R2 or Remote Desktop Services (RDS); some of these issues may be alleviated by running Windows XP mode (32-bit Windows XP running in a virtual machine, seamlessly integrated), which is supported on MPS.
Not surprisingly, the users tab gives you a list of students, along with the option to create new users. (Screenshot by Paul Schnackenburg/ZDNet Australia)
A bright new world of IT learners?
There's a lot of educational and edutainment software on the market, for various age groups, with the intent of helping students learn by having fun and by collaborating using computers. One example that really shines in an MPS system is Scholastic's Story Stage, where up to four children work together on a puppet story, each with their own mouse (distinguished by different colours) that they use to control puppets and props in a fairy tale.
Then there's Microsoft's free Mouse Mischief (which also works on a normal, non MPS system); this allows multiple mice to be connected to a single PC. An add-in for PowerPoint 2007 or 2010 lets a teacher create interactive quizzes and content that each student can participate in with their own mouse cursor.
The only competition MPS has in this space are Linux solutions like Userful Multiplier and OpenSuse's Edu Li-f-e (Linux for Education), which uses Linux Terminal Server Project. Where Microsoft has the advantage is in the wealth of Windows software titles available for education and productivity.
Every sun has its spots
MPS was easy to set up and get going, and performance wasn't an issue on our 4GB, quad-core system. There are some rough edges, particularly in the console, that are characteristics of a version one product, but these are minor quibbles.
The main issue which could be a showstopper for many schools is the artificial limitation of the OEM version, prohibiting it from joining an AD. We hope Microsoft fixes this in the next release, since many schools would benefit from buying MPS directly from a PC manufacturer, with all the components in one box, but still able to scale beyond one classroom.
Overall, though, MPS is a great product; I only wish I had one of these in my classroom when I was growing up.