No, this isn't some post-Halloween, sugar-induced bit of insanity. Over the last couple of months, I've received almost 20 laptops from the US Army Corps of Engineers. Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while know that USACE have been my best source of donated equipment, filling labs, helping students without PCs, and providing fodder for classes where students can rip apart aging computers. Long-time readers will also know that I had largely stopped accepting donations since an influx of cash allowed us to purchase new equipment at the high school, and allowed me to turn my attention to system administration and planning, rather than maintenance of the government's discarded computers.
Unfortunately, the elementary schools in our district did not see that same infusion of cash, and are therefore badly in need of computers. These aren't even computers for labs. Rather, these are merely to have a couple of PCs in each classroom, a computer for teachers to access the new student information system, and computers for administrative personnel. These folks are just thrilled to be getting the high school's hand me downs (sarcasm here), but do understand the district's technology priorities. Since they are largely an understanding and pleasant bunch (they're elementary school teachers; of course they're pleasant), I'm doing my best to give them what I can. As a result, I've let the donations begin trickling back in and have started targeting them for primary schools.
Which brings me back to those 20 laptops. Six of them have hard drives. Doing some speedy mental math tells us that 14 don't have hard drives (or optical drives, for that matter). It seems that the method of choice for destroying sensitive government data on these hard drives involved a hammer (no, really), making what I thought were really great donations into unusable LCD screens. The laptops are Dell Latitudes, so I can cannibalize some parts for our own aging fleet of Dells, but my principal just might do me bodily harm if I start collecting dead computer parts again. There has to be a way to use these things without buying new hard drives, right? The donations certainly lose some of their appeal when I have to start spending money to make them work.
And, of course, there is a way. It's called Edubuntu, since all of the laptops are new enough to boot from a network with a quick tweak to their BIOS. I brought a couple of the laptops home tonight and, after trick-or-treating, made said tweaks, and plugged them into the little subnetwork run by my Edubuntu test server. Just like that, I had diskless, quiet, low-power consumption, space-saving, all-in-one thin clients. The 15" screens on the laptops were a great size, keyboard and mouse (I mean touchpad) were included, and I now had visions for a low-cost way to get a few computers in every overcrowded classroom, while taking a minimum of space. Better yet, it sounds as though these laptops will keep trickling in.
Now I just need to see how far I can push the surplussed desktop computers we already have (or will be getting). Can a PIII or P4 desktop support 2 of the laptop/thin clients? We'll find out this weekend when I see just how much power I can use in my basement and just how many computers I can bring home without driving my wife out of her mind. A desktop running Edubuntu locally and 2 connected "dead" laptops means three computers per class with virtually no investment of money and fairly easy setup for the purposes the elementary teachers have in mind. This weekend, we'll see if the performance will be acceptable in this scenario.
By the way, if you haven't tried out the Xfce desktop environment, you should. I fired it up on the two thin client laptops and noticed really snappy performance. I just finished installing it on my own laptop, too. I think it may be a key to the performance questions I noted above.