Public School District Thinks Thin

Server-based model widens Chapel Hill-Carrboro's computing scope.

When the IT staff for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools system needed to provide more than 10,000 students with anytime, anywhere computing, it turned to server-based computing and deployed thin clients in schools and offices.

With applications available at the server level, students and educators can now access applications and files from school and at home. This strategy has enabled the school district to reduce the amount of support required by users, said Doug Noell, MIS director for Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, in Chapel Hill, N.C. The move has produced substantial cost savings in hardware, allowed the school system to standardize applications and desktop configurations, and strengthened security.

"With the migration of a large majority of our applications onto thin clients, weve seen huge cost savings and are really achieving our objective of trying to provide anytime, anywhere computing," Noell said. "Things can only get better as we move more of our thick clients to thin clients."

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools system serves more than 10,000 students in kindergarten through Grade 12. The school districts IT staff is charged with managing more than 4,000 clients (thick and thin) and providing users with constant access to applications and files.

The school district began looking at thin-client computing when it launched an anytime, anywhere computing strategy in 2001.

After the successful pilot of thin clients and server-based computing at two schools, the districts IT staff decided to deploy thin-client units—specifically, Hewlett-Packard Co.s HP Compaq Evo Thin Client T20 and HP Compaq t5500 systems—at additional schools and remote administrative offices. These thin clients are connected to HP ProLiant DL360 servers for accessing applications and HP ProLiant DL370 servers for data storage. Today, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools system is using more than 600 thin clients.

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With server-application software from Citrix Systems Inc., the school system can give instructors and school administrators access to more than 200 instructional and business applications on the districts IBM AS/400 server. In addition, the system enables educators and students to access primary applications such as Open Text Corp.s First Class e-mail client and Microsoft Corp.s Internet Explorer and Office XP. Each users files are password-protected, and data is backed up every night.

The standardization of applications and desktop configurations also has made support and maintenance much easier for the school systems IT staff of 14. While IT staffers once had to be on-site at schools to resolve user issues, they can now provide help remotely or at the server level.

Its easier to control viruses with thin-client computing because the clients are more locked down than a thick client would be, said Noell.

When Noells school district was hit hard by the SoBig virus in August 2003, IT spent hours fixing thick clients, while the thin clients and Citrix servers were unaffected, he said.

And while it once took an hour to half a day or more to set up a thick client, depending on whether files had to be transferred from a machine, Noell said it takes less than 5 minutes to set up a thin client.

The thin-client computing infrastructure has been successful among students, said Noell, particularly those in the Home Computer Loaner Program, which provides machines to high-school students who cant afford to buy them. Today, more than 100 students in the program use WebDT thin-client machines from DT Research Inc. to remotely access applications and school files on Chapel Hill-Carrboro City public servers via an ISP. The school district is now conducting a TCO (total cost of ownership) study to determine how much it will save by replacing retiring thick clients with thin clients.

Senior Writer Anne Chen can be reached at

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