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Last Updated: Friday, 30 November 2007, 09:20 GMT
Dumb terminals provide smart solution
Thousands of the terminals are being deployed in Macedonia
Thousands of the terminals are being deployed in Macedonia

Computing power may be getting cheaper in the West but for developing countries and many educational authorities worldwide they remain prohibitively expensive when buying in large numbers.

Many firms now offer low-cost PCs and laptops designed specifically for poorer nations but one firm is harnessing the untapped power of computers to power so-called dumb terminals.

NComputing, a privately held company based in Silicon Valley, believes its solution is cheaper and more effective than technology pushed by firms such as Intel, Asus and Microsoft, and the not-for-profit organisation One Laptop Per Child.

"The PC has become so powerful it is like a supercomputer on your desk - but to run everyday applications like internet, e-mail or Office you are only using a very small part of its capability," said Martin Booth, business development director NComputing.

"So why not take that machine and share it with multiple users at the same time?"

NCOMPUTING TERMINALS
NComputing terminal
Each terminal costs 35
A keyboard, mouse and monitor is plugged in
The terminal connects to the main PC via Ethernet

NComputing's solution is to share the resources of a single PC across up to 30 other users by hooking up low-cost terminals, known as a thin client, which are connected across a wired network.

The terminals, which are about the size of a small paperback book, are plugged into a monitor and keyboard and for users the experience is no different from logging into a normal PC.

"The key to the technology is our software that turns the machine into multi-user system," said Mr Booth.

"It sends an image of their desktop off to the box at the other end of cable."

The terminals buffer the screen image passed to and from the central PC and only register a change on the screen in order to minimise the impact on the system's resources.

"It's very efficient. Every extra user demands only an extra 100Mb of memory and the network bandwidth utilisation for most applications is in the hundreds of kilobits."

There are limitations: the network can struggle to deal with the bandwidth needed to send full screen video to a number of terminals and the hardware is not suited for use with 3D graphics.

The terminals work with both Windows and Linux operating system. A software licence needs to be bought for each user accessing Windows.

You hear a lot on the news about OLPC and other initiatives but no-one has ever heard of NComputing
Martin Booth, NComputing

NComputing has sold more than 500,000 terminals to more than 70 countries, including the UK and US, as well as developing nations like Bangladesh.

Mr Booth said: "You hear a lot on the news about OLPC and other initiatives but no-one has ever heard of NComputing. We are deploying a solution for 35 per terminal while the OLPC laptop costs more than 100.

The cost of each terminal does not include a mouse, keyboard or monitor, however.

"A lot of schools have old screens and keyboards which are unused. In the developing world there are lot of programmes to recycle the West's screens and keyboards," said Mr Booth.

Users in Bangladesh
The user experience is like logging on to your own PC

NComputing is taking advantage of Moore's Law, which states that computing power doubles every 18 months.

" The reason this is possible is because hardware companies are making computers that go faster, faster, faster but the cost really isn't coming down," said Mr Booth.

He added: "It's been stuck at 300 for the last few years. You can't really drive down the price any more - the processor, the motherboard, the hard drive - it's a zero margin for manufacturers at the bottom end of the market."

The company's biggest deployment of late has been in the Republic of Macedonia, which has bought 180,000 terminals.

Mr Booth said: "The government decided it wanted to transform the country into a knowledge-based economy within five years and they were going to invest in computers for every student in the country.

"The cheapest way to do it was with us. We have already deployed 90,000 of the 180,000 terminals."

Thin client technology is not new - it has been used widely in banking and sectors which want to avoid placing sensitive information on individual PCs.

NComputing has also been deploying its technology in factories where operating conditions are not suitable for ordinary PCs.

In Creuzberg, Germany, timber firm Pollmeier has replaced PCs on the factory floor with the dumb terminals, which are much more robust, as there are no moving parts.

"We're also putting these terminals in schools in inner London, and inner New York. Our goal is to connect the next billion internet users around the world," said Mr Booth.



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