07 December 2011

How thin is a thin client?

Elena's new office
Monday was a Tongan public holiday in celebration of the birthday of the first king of Tonga, Tupou I, so most of Tonga went to the beach or took some other form of relaxation. Elena did not get day because the New Zealand High Commission works through most local holidays, but it was still a relaxingly slow day for her after two weeks of breakneck job training. For me, it was a welcome respite from the busy last two weeks spent preparing documents for my visa and preparing for my close of service with Peace Corps. So what’s left to do in order to properly wrap up my work with the Free Wesleyan Church schools? In a nutshell, I have to make sure that I’m no longer a necessary element in both helping the schools adopt new computer systems, and providing procurement, maintenance, and repair support from Tupou Tertiary Institute.

A thin client workstation at my office
Over the past 17 months, I’ve been working at the headquarters for the Free Wesleyan Church schools finding and implementing a solution to consistently providing enough computers for all students in the system. Many of the high schools have computers, but not even close to enough for the number of students who need to take computer classes; this forces students to double or triple up on one computer, if they are lucky. This becomes a major issue when a class has more than 60 students and only 7 computers, and has led to cases where some students never touch a computer during a year of computer classes. While this is an extreme case, it’s seen in schools all over Tonga.

Setting up thin clients at a school with
Sia Computer Technicians
So how do institutions with limited resources provide enough computers for their needs in a tropical environment hostile to electronics? In the case of Tonga, another volunteer from my Peace Corps intake group came up with an answer for his school in the form of NComputing’s thin clients. These systems allow you to take any average modern desktop computer and expand it so that between 2 and 100 people can all use it at the same time, each sitting at their own screens, with their own keyboards and mice (the two different models that we use are the L300 and X550). Even though every user is using the same computer at the same time as the other users, it functions as if each user is at their own individual computer. The devices are at least half the cost of a conventional computer, use around 1% of the electricity, and have no moving parts, so they last over 5 years in our dusty, hot, humid climate. What's even cooler is that because they last longer and are just slightly larger than a digital camera, they amount to a drastic decrease in the amount of electronic waste that is produced. In short, they are ideal for the schools here in Tonga, lasting two to three times longer than a conventional computer, at half the price.

Thin clients mount on the back of the monitor 
out of the way
So we’d found the ‘what’ to the solution, leaving the ‘how;’ after pitching the idea to Samiuela Fonua, the Dean of Academic Support at Tupou Tertiary Institute (TTI, one of the few post-secondary education schools in Tonga), he decided to run a pilot installation of these devices at that school. TTI also has a small offshoot computer business, Sia Computer, which is well placed to be the primary service provider for all the schools, which entered into our decision. The devices have worked well ever since their installation there over a year ago, prompting us to order more for the school and whole-heartedly recommend them for other schools both within and outside of the Free Wesleyan Church.

An integral part of this process was developing our relationship with the supplier in Australia, which has allowed Sia Computer at TTI to become the official agent for NComputing in Tonga. This offers the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone: Sia Computer desperately needs more business, and the Wesleyan schools get access to these devices at a discount. While the business is still in its infancy, if Sia Computer is successful at developing the market in Tonga for these devices, it will be an enormous boost to them.

These thin clients only use 1 Watt of electricity (the 
model pictured above only uses 5W)
Ideally, if I could wave a wand and make everything immediately fall into place, Sia Computer would name a marketing and sales director, as well as identify a leader to take over as manager. These two people would work out a service contract they could offer clients, including the Free Wesleyan Schools, and then capitalise on their relationships with school-mates, former colleagues, and friends to promote these thin clients. Then on the Free Wesleyan Church school's side, a comprehensive plan on how to procure as well as maintain and repair computers would guide them in these areas that currently are dealt with haphazardly. Each school principal currently has to figure things out on his or her own instead of taking advantage of the buying power of the larger organization they belong to. 

Obviously, this is a simplistic sketch of the process that needs to take place, but in the next week and a half, I hope that I will have pushed them in the right direction so that one day this can become a reality. And while I don't often think about my legacy, the best possible outcome would be that the Free Wesleyan Schools would have computers that they could rely on, and that Sia Computer at TTI would be an integral and genuinely useful part of this.

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