Future clouds for Sun Ray in WA schools

Sun Microsystems' Sun Ray thin-clients have failed to win over the Western Australian Department of Education and Training (WA DET) after a lengthy trial of the hardware in its schools.
Written by Andrew Colley, Contributor
Sun Microsystems' Sun Ray thin-clients have failed to win over the Western Australian Department of Education and Training (WA DET) after a lengthy trial of the hardware in its schools.

In one of the first instances in which a large organisation has commented openly on testing of Sun's open source challenger to Microsoft's desktop platform -- trials normally conducted behind a veil of commercial secrecy --, WA DET CIO Bevan Doyle said the department didn't see it as having "a strong presence in [its] immediate future".

WA DET started the trial involving four schools in the Fremantle district in January 2002, but they're now expected to be phased out in the coming months.

The trial was conducted as part of its search for a collaborative online education platform to weave around its AU$23 million network, rolled out across the state last year.

The result of the pilot program comes as Sun continues its aggressive drive to erode the ubiquitous Office-Windows software culture by breaking Microsoft's grip on the education market.

The strategy has primarily involved Sun offering licence fees for its open source-based office productivity software, StarOffice, to schools and universities at heavily discounted rates.

According to Doyle, the trial -- which included the StarOffice office productivity suite -- had been partially successful, but that overall Sun's hardware was too complex for the school environment.

"Sun stuff is very complex to manage in a school setting on the desktop," said Doyle.

Laurie Wong, software business manager for Sun conceded there was sweet-spot roll-out scale when it came to the company's hardware.

Wong said that the economy offered by the Sun Ray lies in its manageability and reliability advantages over conventional fat-client desktops, but that they don't appear until the roll-out approaches medium-scale.

However Doyle, a CIO who has the interests of an estimated 300,000 students across 800 schools at heart, also said that the technology had "some issues" when it came to multi-media applications.

"We trialled thin clients and it was successful in parts but some applications used in schools like the video-media stuff doesn't travel too well," said Doyle.

WA DET is relying on multimedia to help it expand the curriculum available to students in remote areas, where pupil-to-teacher ratios might ordinarily discount the possibility of offering some courses such as languages.

"The old structure would suggest you can't do that because we're not resourced for one-to-one, but if that child could spend their lesson in a virtual classroom with a whole group of other kids connected into a learning experience, then its a valid delivery support program to enrich the learning environment for those kids," Doyle said.

Wong said Sun was addressing the issues identified by WA DET by improving its support for USB multi-media devices.

Wong defended the open source platform's support limitations, saying rich multi-media functionality needed to be balanced against security concerns.

Pointing to the example of Microsoft Internet Explorer, he said it was a classic case of security being sacrificed heavily in favour of functionality.

According to Sun's media representatives on the east coast, the company's Western Australian executives who worked closely with DET on the Sun Ray pilot were unavailable to comment on this report before publication.

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