Desktop multiplier takes limited PC resources a long way

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A desktop virtualization software product developed by an Calgary-based company is teaching students at an Illinois middle school some pretty impressive multiplication lessons.

Several students at Danville School District 118 (up to eight) are able to gain simultaneous computer access to a single Linux PC using the Desktop Multiplier for SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10 (SLED 10), developed by software firm Userful Corp. and distributed by Omni Technology Solutions Inc., or Edmonton.

Not only did the multiplied desktop strategy enable the school to stretch its PC budget, it also helped reduce associated infrastructure and power outlay, according to a spokesperson for the school district.

“[We] saved thousands of dollars [by avoiding] costly Internet drops, switches, network wiring and support costs,” said Christel Powell, manager of information systems at Danville School District.

For instance, Powell said, the cost of installing conduits and wires for two 120-volt circuits in a single room was around $2,700. The school was able to nick this expense because each classroom already had one data port and the multiplied desktop system required no additional network or electrical wiring changes.

She said the School District was able to cut hardware expenses by as much as 50 per cent.

The new system, she said, is also environmentally friendly because it reduces power consumption by 62 per cent and slashes PC recycling overhead by 70 per cent.

The multiplied desktop strategy is quite straightforward, according to Aldo Zanoni, CEO of Omni.

By installing the Desktop Multiplier SLED 10 on a Linux PC, adding video cards and a powered USB hub, up to 10 monitors equipped with separate peripheral devices such as keyboards and mice can run “full-featured user sessions at the same time” from a single computer, said Zanoni.

He said Danville chose an eight-user Linux desktop bundle which includes an Intel Core 2 Duo 2.1 Ghz system with 2 GB of RAM, a 250 GB hard drive, eight monitors, eight USB keyboards and mice, eight audio headsets and a USB hub.

Zanoni said the system offers several key advantages over thin clients or dumb terminals .

Rather than transmitting data from a thin client server to individual thin clients over an Ethernet cable “users of Desktop Multiplier have direct access to the system and have a much richer user experience.”

He also said thin clients and also requires the purchase of PC units rather than less expensive monitors.

The Linux Desktop Multiplier is a layer of software that sits on top of the Linux kernel and “listens” for keyboard and mouse inputs and monitor outputs. The software then assigns these three items to a unique user session, according to another Omni executive.

Apart from being cheaper than PCs, the low energy consuming monitors further cut power consumption and will cover a smaller “environmental footprint” when the need for recycling arises, said Trevor Poapst, director if business development, Omni.

He said as a traditional stand-alone desktop uses 140 watts of electricity, eight such computers would consume 1,120 watts.

By contrast, the Multiplied Linux Desktop only uses 430 watts, thereby resulting in power savings of approximately 62 per cent, Poapst said.

The move away from the ubiquitous Windows-based operating system (OS) has had a minimal negative effect on users because of the preponderance of open source alternatives, according to Poapst. “There is almost no pure Windows software product that doesn’t have a Linux counterpart.”

The Linux PC at Danville runs basic applications such as OpenOffice, an open source office suite compatible with Microsoft Office; GroupWise, a Novell cross-platform collaborative application; Squid Web Proxy Cache and a host of Linux education applications.

Meanwhile, Danville School District’s Powell, said students had no difficulty switching to an open source software model. “We had brief training sessions and they were ready to go.”

She said the school intends to expand the program this summer to 68 Linux PCs that will be available for 544 users.

The multiplied desktop strategy is applicable for various corporate and healthcare industry use, according to one Canadian analyst.

Other companies such as Microsoft, Apple and IBM offere products using a similar concept, according to Joel Martin, vice-president of enterprise software with IDC Canada.

“Software products that enable organizations to multiply desktop sessions are ideal productivity tools in testing and artistic environments as well,” Martin said.

For instance, he said various “replicas” of a PC can be used to experiment on software, applications or design ideas.

The multiplied desktop strategy can also be deployed in clinics or hospitals where monitors might require a “personalized look and feel” for laboratory, office or patient use, Martin added.

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