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Green Teach: Canadian virtualization technology for students in Brazil   |  May 27, 2009  

Canadian virtualization technology delivers computer access to millions of students in Brazil

By Hailey Eisen

For the past few years there has been a push to provide computer access to students across the globe on the premise that technology and the Internet are great equalizers. The Brazil Ministry of Education is at the forefront of this initiative—committing to making computers available in every one of its classrooms. The idea is to use technology as a tool for educational enrichment and to encourage social integration. No matter whether students are learning in decrepit rural classrooms or concrete urban schools, equal access to computer technology will help unite them.

Brazil opted to implement a program that will put desktops (as opposed to laptops) in every classroom across the country, providing computer access to millions of children and adolescents. And it chose Calgary-based software developer Userful and its Brazilian IT partner ThinNetworks to bring this vision to life.

Having recently completed the first stage of the deployment, Userful and ThinNetworks will supply, in total, 356,800 virtualized desktops to schools in all of Brazil’s 5,560 municipalities, a project they say is the world’s largest desktop virtualization deployment to date.

The first 18,750 computers were installed in classrooms in Brazil’s rural villages and, according to ThinNetworks’ director Luiz Cláudio, are already working extremely well. “The pupils who are benefiting from this technology are adolescents from low-income families who are in the public education system and would not have access to such resources otherwise,” he said (in an e-mail interview translated from Portuguese). “The pupils feel stimulated to participate in lessons which have become more dynamic and interesting as a result of the computers and accompanying software.”

Not only does this project benefit the students, but it is also seen as an economic stimulus for Brazil. “The majority of the financial expenditure is going directly into the Brazilian economy,” said Tim Griffin, the CEO of Userful, “with us providing the magic software ingredient.”

This is viewed as an investment in the short term, which will provide wide-reaching socio-economic benefits for the country and its inhabitants in the long run. ThinNetworks functions as the project steward, providing the Userful Multiplier software solution along with desktop virtualization and PC sharing hardware. Three local manufacturers, Positivo, Daruma and Itautec, are providing the PCs and all related services, including project management expertise.

“The growth of the virtualization sector will not harm the market for hardware manufacturers,” Cláudio said. “Quite the contrary, great projects such as this one with the Ministry of Education are extremely lucrative for hardware manufacturers.”

Similar to the One Laptop per Child program, the hardware for this deployment is rugged and durable, meant to function reliably in harsh conditions and rural environments. “The benefit of not being in the hardware business is that we can take advantage of the latest innovations and power-saving solutions made available by hardware manufacturers,” Griffin said.

How it works
“Our focus is to make the most sustainable desktop computer on the planet, with familiar and flexible PC hardware that requires little to no IT expertise to manage,” said Griffin, who founded Userful in 1999 and launched Userful Desktop, a public computing solution, in 2002.

Userful Multiplier is a software solution that allows up to 10 independent workstations to be created from a single standard computer box. Unlike the Thin Client solution that requires a server remotely wired to a local desktop device, the Multiplier solution is just one PC, connected to a number of workstations functioning as independent computers and managed remotely, through an administration Web site.

For the Multiplier solution to work, the user simply attaches extra monitors, keyboards and mice to one computer, along with video and USB ports. The result: one computer creates multiple desktop workstations, giving students access to multimedia streaming (videos, graphics, music), the Internet, e-mail and educational programming.

The computers use a Linux operating system (Educacional 2.0) developed by the Brazilian Ministry of Education. Students also access education software designed for the local curriculum, according to Userful’s marketing manager Sean Rousseau.

Cost and benefit
The system’s affordability and ease of use makes this solution appealing to hospitals, schools, call centres and libraries both in North America and abroad. The same model being used in Brazil’s school system can be deployed in a for-profit scenario such as an Internet café or as a touchdown point for a remote or “deskless” workforce.

For large deployments, such as the one in Brazil, there are significant cost savings compared with putting actual full-functioning computers in each classroom. “The cost per additional desktop is less than $50, not including the initial PC,” Griffin said. “That’s a 60 per cent savings in upfront costs.”

The eco footprint
Rarely does an individual use a desktop computer to its full capacity. While users check e-mail, surf the Web or create word processing documents, the computer’s processor—its brain—is practically idle. “Data suggest that utilization on a typical PC over a 24-hour period is somewhere between five and 10 per cent,” said Michael Rose, IDC’s industry analyst for enterprise virtualization software.

Userful’s PC sharing and virtualization technology provides an environmentally effective alternative. It leverages unused computing power and shares it with up to 10 desktops. “In 2008, our users saved more than 40,000 tons of CO2, the equivalent of taking 7,000 cars off the road or planting 10,000 acres of trees,” Rousseau said.

In terms of measurable impact on Brazil, the environmental savings are equally as impressive. “This deployment alone saves more than 170,000 tons of CO2 emissions annually compared with using the equivalent number of full-functioning computers,” Rousseau said. And then there’s all the e-waste that’s being eliminated. “Turning one computer into 10 reduces computer hardware waste by up to 80 per cent and reduces the amount of energy that goes into making each computer.”

The energy savings associated with running a number of workstations from one PC make it possible for rural classrooms to support this kind of infrastructure. “Instead of having to rewire the power in these schools to support five unique CPUs, they just need enough electricity to run one,” Griffin said.


The netbook alternative

The One Laptop per Child (OLPC) initiative was launched in 2005 to address technology needs in developing countries. Built around very low-cost notebooks, the idea is to get computers into the hands of poorer people.

The basis of the program is the netbook—a small but rugged energy-efficient laptop with built-in wireless and enough computing power to support the needs of any child. And, while this non-profit initiative is beginning to have a significant impact in schools around the world, computer users in the western world have also begun exploring the netbook as an alternative to a laptop computer.

The realization that most laptops are equipped with capabilities and power that will never be fully utilized, coupled with a desire to make environmentally responsible purchases, have begun to place the more affordable, energy-efficient netbook at the forefront of consumers’ minds. The small size (fits in a purse) and functionality of the netbook as a tool for surfing the Web, social networking and word processing is making this mini-laptop a viable option for many students and professionals. As a personal computer, the netbook fulfils most people’s requirements and offers portability and convenience, important to this highly mobile generation.

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