NComputing X350 = classroom labs in a snap

You know the story: times are tight, do more with less, make 1:1 happen with less money, etc., etc.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

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.

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