Friday, 16 July 2010

Student computer labs again

Came across a tweet from Witwatersrand University in South Africa. They have an RFI out for the provision of all Wits students with laptops or netbooks.

Now that's provocative. They are roughly twice the size of us with half as many staff and only around 50% of their students have regular access to a computer. Crucially, they argue that rather than provide access via student computer labs they want to put in place a solution where students have their own computing device, with uninterrupted access to enhance the learning experience.

I'm going to guess that Wits students are more like our demographic 10 of 15 years ago, relatively poor and hence unable to tin up for a computer in one hit, and that WITS is hoping to ease the costs of computer ownership, perhaps through something like a mobile phone solution - you know the deal, pay $49/mo, get a certain number of free calls and free data and after 24 months you get to keep the phone - effectively a combination of service charges and lease-purchase. (And crucially saving you the costs of recovery and disposal of end of lease devices.)

As readers of this blog are aware I periodically rant on about how student computer labs are antiquated, and in one sense we only have them because once we had rooms full of terminals connected to time sharing computer systems. If we'd never had sheds full of vt220's we might have done something different. But we already had the rooms, so it was easier to re-equip them with computers than think outside of the box.

Now unlike Wits who assume they have 50% penetration, we tend to assume we have around 85% penetration, which would mean we only have around 2000 students without regular access to a computer.

That figure of 85% is of course based on what we ask incoming students, I suspect that in fact penetration is close to 100%, ie all students who require a computer to pursue their coursework have access to one, Of course some of them may be second hand ex government cast offs, but given you can buy a Samsung netbook for $500 and a reasonable laptop from Dell for $700 I would be surprised if there were vary few financially disadvantaged students without access.

And of course all these users are self supporting, printing at home, buying their consumables from officeworks or sevenstar etc

That then begs the question of why we continue to provide student labs. Certainly not to print - we have a solution to allow students to print on campus. And certainly not for wordprocessing. If you can't afford Office, there's OpenOffice or Abiword, or GoogleDocs at a pinch. Not for email, most of them either use our webmail service or their own - essentially at least half the student body have self outsourced, and not the VLE, that's web based - in fact basically the only reason left is for access to specialist software as well as a computing provider of last resort when a possum pees on your laptop.

So let's look at the cost of providing public access labs.

We have around 1000 pc's and 300 iMacs. Let's say the pc's cost us around $1200 each to purchase with three years onsite maintenance bundled and the macs $2400, or a little under $2M in aggregate every three years, or an average of $670k per annum. Add in the salaries of the people who check the labs, swap out broken pc's and we're probably running at around $1M a year.

And a million dollars a year would buy a lot of virtual desktop infrastructure. Assume for a moment that the software contract administration, software licensing costs and the costs of packaging and distributing software are the same with a vdi solution. And assume that with near 100% penetration and good to excellent wireless coverage everywhere we can assume that everyone on campus can access a virtual desktop.

People still with orthodox pizza box machines would of course access the vdi infrastructure via their isp, with possible cost implications. But I'll fly a kite here and say that most students have laptops or netbooks - unlike 10 years ago the entry cost for a reasonable laptop (or netbook) is considerably less than that for a desktop, and they all have adequate grunt - remember all they really need to do is run a browser.

In fact if we assume that we can get 24 virtual pc's on a blade (not an unreasonable estimate as a blade will support 16 virtual servers) and we can put 10 blades costing $1500 each into an enclosure that costs us $20,000 including maintenance, we get 240 virtual pc's for $35,000 or a 1000 for $140,000 leaving us with a little over half a million to play with for extra virtualisation software licensing costs, establishing a loan pool to deal with the 'possum peed on my laptop' problem, staff training etc

Now that is provocative ...

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