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Thursday, 20 March 2008 22:24

Not the OLPC: Sustainable computing for the masses

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Stephen Dukker doesn't like to be described as a do-gooder; he's not comfortable with the label of humanitarian either. It just so happens that what he's involved in is bringing cheap computing to people - and helping a lot of others to make a decent living as well.

Dukker is the chairman and chief executive of NComputing, a company headquartered in Redwood, California, that is using technology invented by German Klaus Maier and South Korean Young Song to provide cheap seats for those who want to use computers.

Both Maier and Song remain with NComputing, the former as chief technology officer and the latter as chief operating officer.

NComputing has developed its own virtualisation software that runs on either a Windows or GNU/Linux host PC; to this host, users connect through a proprietary access device. Depending on the device used and the specs of the host, each host can either provide seven seats (six children plus the host - the distance at which these are located is limited) or in a second case 20 to 30 users can be accommodated and there is no limitation on distance.

In the first instance, what the company calls the X-series, the connection to the host is through a PCI card; given that two PCI slots are free on today's PCs, this limits the number of users to six, with each card accommodating three. In the second instance, the connection is through ethernet and is called the L-series.

Dukker says the cost per seat for the X-series is $US70 while the L-Series per seat cost is $US150. In the roughly five years since NComputing was set up, Dukker says half a million systems have been deployed by 15,000 organisations. Computing costs are said to have decreased by as much as 70 per cent and electricity consumption by 90 per cent. The costs do not include the host systems or monitors for the users.

Dukker says about 40 per cent of NComputing's customers have chosen Linux (the company uses Ubuntu, Debian, Fedora or SuSE) and the remainder have gone with Windows on the host. He is careful to specify that he has no religion when it comes to the operating system - it is entirely the buyer's choice. (Of course, if he were not offering the GNU/Linux option, then he wouldn't have got a run here).

There is a three-year warranty on hardware and software and this is entrusted to a local supplier in the country where the purchase is made - so far half of NComputing's sales have been outside the US, with Brazil being its second largest market.

But Dukker has not been in the news only because of NComputing; to some extent he has gained a profile because of his criticism of the One Laptop Per Child project, the effort led by MIT's Nicholas Negroponte which has the goal of developing a low-cost laptop to revolutionise how the world's children are educated.

(It is important to point out here that NComputing did not target the educational arena when it was formed - the aim was to deliver cheap computing to anyone who was willing to pay what the NComputing solution cost. But some of its larger customers have been in the education sector - for example, the Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia bought 180,000 seats for its entire school system.)


Dukker's opposition to the OLPC project is, he says, not based on the fact that it could compete with his product; as he puts it, the "unrealistic expectations" created by the project could well lead to governments in the developing world, which are now inclined to be receptive to accepting PCs as viable educational tools, changing their minds because things go wrong.

"The OLPC has no business model on how to buy, manage and support the hardware," Dukker said. "The role of the technology company is trivialised, even though this entity is part of the ecosystem playing a vital role in maintenance and logistics.

"OLPC gives the user an incorrect idea of the actual cost - it is akin to giving a person a laptop at the distribution point in Shenzhen, China, and a pat on the back as a good luck guarantee. It misrepresents the actual cost."

Dukker says the option provided by his company - where there is technical support for three years from a local partner - not only provides much-needed backup but also ends up being cheaper and more sustainable in the long run.

He points to the fact that the OLPC has a newly developed operating environment, new hardware and no support structure apart from the government agencies which are involved. And, he asks, who will administer the application of software patches or repairs to hardware?

Dukker believes that using a computer in a lab environment is much better from an educational perspective than letting a child have a laptop round the clock. Given the limited number of laptop trials in the US, he feels it is better to use the lab environment in other countries too.

And he is afraid that if a scheme like OLPC is accepted by a country and fails, then it will queer the pitch for businesses like his which are, effectively, trying to do the same thing.

Dukker says right now governments are receptive to the idea of using computers in education but that may change if things don't work out as outlined by those bringing in the technology.

One could well say his arguments are aimed at self-preservation. I doubt he would take issue with that. He's not aiming at big bucks either but while he has no private jet, he does drive a BMW, a station wagon.

Essentially what he's trying to convey is that one can "do good" and "do well" at the same time. He doesn't want to rely on charity to succeed; rather what he's done is develop a business model that allows the entire supply chain to gain from selling NComputing solutions.

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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