Computing to a budget

We’re all used to plummeting prices these days, which mostly fail to raise an eyebrow even though they’re cheap compared to costs a few years back. But even I raised an eyebrow when an email dropped into my inbox bearing the subject line “Acers now only £5 each”.

Computing to a budget

As I was reaching for my mouse to open this mail, I suddenly realised it came from Thompson & Morgan, the gardening supplier… I suppose it would have been too far fetched really, but when you’re on a tight budget – and anyone co-ordinating an ICT department at a school will know what I’m on about – you’ll grasp at straws, or even saplings. The headmaster might frown if I were to replace our current systems with a thicket of maples, no matter how attractive their autumn foliage might be.

Good value for money, however, is the cornerstone of this month’s column. I need to expand my ICT systems throughout the school and also to create a fully equipped resource room containing at least 16 systems. And I had plans that went far beyond the computers themselves – I could be heard muttering “cross-curricular” quite a lot over the summer, but that’s a subject for another column. Problem one was simple: I needed 16 more systems that I didn’t have, so I’d have to buy them, which might sound simple, but my budget doesn’t stretch to 16 new PCs. I was clearly going to have to approach this acquisition from a different angle, and that angle was to use Terminal Server with 16 dumb clients. I wasn’t contemplating a wholesale move to this solution, which isn’t really suited to the CAD and advanced graphics applications used by some of the classes, but for many less-taxing apps it could work just fine.

Dumb clients

I started to investigate the cost not only of purchasing new dumb clients, but also of converting existing PCs to dumb clients. Doing the latter might seem odd, but for me it made a great deal of sense: take all my old Pentium III systems with their 128MB and 256MB of memory, and boot them as dumb clients. They were struggling as standalone systems, but as dumb clients they’d be over-specced and in theory should run like rockets. What I’d also need, of course, was a damn fine server to run all my apps, and this would be the expensive bit.

I priced 16 dumb terminals for the resource room, and the conversion of my existing clients to dumb terminals for both the junior and senior schools, and also looked at the option of leaving my existing systems alone and trying to source 16 new desktop PCs for the resource room. In terms of cost, the latter option didn’t look good, as even buying at rock-bottom prices I could still convert all the existing systems, buy in 16 new dumb terminals and a server to run them all for less than the cost of 16 new desktop PCs. What’s more, I found I was able to get 19in monitors at less than £100 a pop, and that included VAT.

As an aside, pay attention to the small print of some of the current monitor offers that are flying around. On paper, they may look awesome, but if you read the warranty information you’ll realise that any problems encountered would require you to ship them to a destination in mainland Europe, and the cost of doing so would far outweigh any financial advantage gained by buying them so cheaply in the first place.

To me, the key was finding a supplier I was comfortable with, and whom I knew would provide me with excellent support if things went wrong. Helen at VdotCOM was already supplying my antivirus solution and was sure she could fulfil this requirement, too. We mulled over all the options and eventually arrived at a setup that would suit my budget, while also meeting all my other requirements. Bear in mind that these monitors would be running off dumb clients, so I didn’t need all-singing, all-dancing jobs – the 19in ones were fine. I’d have settled for 17in units, but more real estate is easier on the eyes, and there was virtually no price difference. For the server, we went for an IBM eServer xSeries 366 with a 3GHz Quad-Core Intel Xeon, 3GB of RAM and an IBM SCSI ServerRAID containing two fast 74GB hard disks set up as a mirror. This system would run as a Terminal Server and host only the apps: user accounts and storage, printing, backup, email and all the other domain functions were to be left on my two Dell PowerEdge SC1425s.

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