What’s the cheapest Server thin-client technology to provide computer seats to between 150 and 200 students and teachers?

Joseph Videtto February 9, 2013
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Hi – many of you know me, I work in a school and am helping them explore options for computer purchase.

The school has a budget of about 20K. Their initial thought was individual desktops, and we need about $5K for peripherals (printers, replace broken monitors)

From the great answers on this very website (thanks for such a useful website !!!) I learned of the NComputing X550 product – let’s me take one PC and add 5 additional users to it by adding a PCI card with 5 network connections that plug into 5 little ‘thin-client’ boxes (each about the size of a typical router or network switch). This would allow the single desktop planned for each classroom to power 5 other thin-clients with the X550 (assuming a powerful enough PC, cost = PC + X550 kit divided by 5).

Upon investigating further, NComputing recommended their L300 product – which is an ~$200 dollar thin-client product required for each user that must be connected over the network to a server powerful enough for the total number of users / apps traffic load planned for. (assuming a powerful enough server, total cost = cost of 2 hardware servers (one for backup/failover), and $200 per thin-client per user).

3.) After researching the NComputing L300 – and seeing the term ‘thin-client’ – I remembered a company and product called Citrix, which I believe is in the same business of distributing apps via virtualization to thin clients. I know nothing about the Citrix product.

I’ve summarized what I believe to be enough information to ask advice – I can give more details if needed. I do NOT know the planned application usage for students and teachers because since I’ve been there, our school has not had enough internet bandwidth and working computers to allow any more than access to some educational internet games. I would imagine that office apps, Google apps, email impose minimal server requirements, but everyone watching YouTube videos at the same time might be a very heavy load, and I’ve heard flash player is a really resource-hog.

My questions are, with a budget of about 20K, the hope of providing about 150 seats, and with the need to buy all the hardware and infrastructure software required (excluding application software, that is):

1.) What would be the wisest investment for the school:
a.) 25 desktops ($400, excluding monitors) + 25 NComputing X550 kits ($300 per kit) = $17500 for 150 users
b.) 2 servers (powerful enough for 150 users, guessing 5000 each) + 60 NComputing L300s ($180 each) = $20,800 for 60 users, and need to find additional monies to add more users later)
c.) 2 servers (powerful enough for 150 users, guessing 5000 each) + Citirx software and thin-clients (I know nothing about Citrix – please help me learn what additional monies and software required)

2.) The school must buy from Dell – we’re looking at these:

a.) DELL STARTER SERVER T110 II,3.10 GHZ, 3GB, 2 X 2TB SATA HD, RAID 1, WIN2K8R2 STD/5 CALS, UPS, EXT 2TBHD, INSTALL, 1 DAY INTEG, 1 DAY TRAINING, FOR NON-MISSION T110 – 2

b.) DELL STANDARD SERVER T420, 2x Intel Xeon 2.2GHZ, 8GB, 4x1TB 2x300GB SAS HD, RAID 5,WIN2K8R2 STD/5 CALS, UPS, EXT 2TBHD, INSTALL, 1 DAY INTEG, 1 DAY TRAINING, FOR MULTIPLE

3.) I’m not sure about our internal network – other than that it is “Frame Relay” – how can I find out if it has the bandwidth capacity to support 200 users running Apps/Youtube videos/ Flash Apps,… over the network ?

4.) What are the pros and cons of each alternative approach, i.) X550 vs. ii.) L300 vs. iii.) Citrix

I can start off with the following:

X550 pros:
– cost: cheapest cost per seat

X550 cons:
– software installs, upgrades, backups: have to travel to each classroom to manage hardware
– backups, failover: central at the server, RAID supported
– hardware maintenance: distributed – have to travel to each classroom to manage hardware
– expandability and scaling: harder than L300; need to buy a new desktop, and install PCI cards

L300 pros:
– software installs, upgrades: easier – central at the server
– backups, failover: central at the server, RAID supported
hardware maintenance: central at the server
? load balancing and failover ? – given 2 servers purchased ?
expandability and scaling: easier than X550 – can upgrade a single server components or machine, and buy L300s to add more users
power consumption – low per thin client

L300 cons:
– cost: much higher per seat than X550
– maintenance: need a computer administrator to manage server

Citrix pros:
– ??same as L300

Citrix cons:
– cost: ?? vs. L300

  1. Oron Joffe
    February 10, 2013 at 5:32 pm

    Great answers here from others, but I would advise caution, and getting professional advice.
    There are plenty of factors regarding your infrastructure (Bruce made a great start) and use of the machines, and we know practically nothing about the peak load, which is a MAJOR consideration. How many students would be watching streaming videos at any one time? In a class? In the school as a whole? Is your internet connection fast enough to cope with that? Is your internal infrastructure fast enough (and good enough - switches rather than hubs etc) for the anticipated peak need?
    A maximum of 5 clients per server does not sound to me like a great deal. You will need several servers per class, and goodness knows how many for the whole school, and ALL OF THEM will need to be managed - updated, kept secure (physically and software-wise), backed up etc. This will be a lot of work, particularly if the person doing it (the "sys admin" from your other questions) is you, with no specific pay or time allocation for the task.
    What you need to make this work is a *limited* number of servers and, as I advised you in a separate post, a service agreement for the bulk of the technical work.
    Companies that offer such hardware/software combinations, and especially those that cater to the education sector, have account managers who you can liaise with. These account managers can provide some answers (mostly "how much will product X cost"), but more importantly, they can put you in touch with specialists who will help you to assess your infrastructure and requirements (in fact, they may even come over and do a proper audit, but perhaps not for a $20k contract!). They will be able to "size" the problem for you and advise you on performance (although there is always an element of guesswork there, you may think that the students will watch youtube clips whereas in reality they'll be copying huge p2p files or whatever...).
    Most importantly, if you proceed WITHOUT getting your supplier involved, the responsibility will be entirely yours, and neither the school nor the supplier will look upon you kindly if you get it wrong. IT IS WORTH MONEY TO GET GOOD ADVICE!
    (BTW, I live in the UK and do not work for such a supplier, I HAVE worked with suppliers, and learned both the easy and the hard way!).

    • Bruce Epper
      February 12, 2013 at 5:12 pm

      The client/server ratio varies depending on the product. With the X550 he mentioned, it would be 11 clients/PC since 2 X550 PCI cards can be put into each PC with 5 clients/card and still have a user at the PC itself. The ratio still isn't great. With the L300 using a vSphere setup on a good server, yoiu can have up to 100 users/server depending on the OS used for the client. Even with that ratio, you would still be looking at a minimum 3-node cluster for performance and availability (failover) concerns for 150-200 seats plus at least one outside (not in the vSphere cluster) fileserver for any saved data requirements.

      As far as guessing about what the students are doing, that is controllable to an extent via proper firewall and/or proxy rules as well as locking down the virtualized environments they are using. If they cannot install the p2p software or run it from a USB device, you don't have to worry about torrents filling the data pipe. You could even take more draconian measures (like I probably would) and make it so they can only run specific (approved) programs within their environment.

  2. ha14
    February 10, 2013 at 11:35 am

    2X Fat2Thin calculator
    http://www.2x.com/whitepapers/savings-thin-client-computing/
    Fat2Thin calculator calculates the potential savings of converting PCs to thin clients.
    http://www.2x.com/thinclientserver/

    Campus Triples Bandwidth Capacity
    https://www.sau.edu/News_and_Events/N120327_Campus_Triples_Bandwidth_Capacity.html

    Citrix VDI in a Box vs nComputing
    http://community.spiceworks.com/topic/297184-citrix-vdi-in-a-box-vs-ncomputing

  3. Bruce Epper
    February 10, 2013 at 5:21 am

    Need more info first. What is the existing network infrastructure? BTW, the frame relay reference is most likely referring to the internet connection (a partial T1), not the internal network for the school which would be Token Ring (is anyone still using that?), Ethernet, Fast Ethernet, Gigabit Ethernet, etc.

    How many individual classrooms are you looking to fill? How many clients per classroom? Answers to these will determine the optimal configuration of computers and clients, hopefully reducing overall expenditures.

    Have you also considered the costs of the monitors, keyboards, and mice required for these devices as they are not included with either the X or L model devices you specified?

    What operating system are you planning on virtualizing for the clients? You need to consider potential licensing costs here as well. If you are looking at using Linux, this is not a consideration unless you want to buy a support package.

    For the L300, you need to consider other factors. Will the servers be set up as a cluster using an active/passive configuration or will it be a load-balancing solution? In other words, does one server handle the full load at all times and the second server sits idle until the first fails whereupon it would take over the work or will they share the load between them and the split load shifts to the remaining server in case of failure of the other? Where will the user files be stored? If each server is only holding the files of the users who are currently logged into it, those may be inaccessible if the user's environment is shifted to the other server for whatever reason. Because of this, you should probably be looking at 3 servers instead of 2 with one of the servers being used as a dedicated fileserver with RAID storage. It can also supply iSCSI targets for the other 2 servers in order to make it easier to manage the server configurations themselves and the virtualized environments, especially if you may consider using different virtual machines for specific needs.

    For Citrix, the situation is similar to the L300 solution and you can get Citrix XenServer free. You do a bare-metal install of the Xen hypervisor (about 5 minutes) on each server, add the management software to a desktop machine and configure the servers from there. They can be set up as active/passive or load-balanced. Check out the details at http://www.freexenserver.com. The free XenServer trial is the full version of the software and not exactly a trial. it does not expire or cripple itself and it is truly a free version of the software. You will still need thin-clients such as the L300 to fill out this solution.

    Later this year, I am hoping to be able to pick up a couple of inexpensive servers in order to get some hands-on experience with XenServer.