Better computers, big power savings for cash-strapped schools

Saanich School District overhauled its computer networks – one that has drastically reduced energy consumption and saved cash

This spring, the Saanich School District finished a complete overhaul of its computer networks – one that has drastically reduced its energy consumption, saved cash and won an environmental recognition award for the district.

SD 63 replaced every computer in every school to diskless, or thin clients. Each workstation in each school is now connected to a central server, allowing computers to run on less energy, start up and shut off at set times and receive simultaneous updates.

The changeover reduced the school computers’ energy consumption by about 75 per cent and earned the district an Eco Star award from the Capital Regional District. The model will also afford students access to more up-to-date technology since whenever possible, open source software has been installed on the server in lieu of commercial products.

“Often times schools are left with using used computers and then using very old software,” said Gregg Ferrie, director of information technology. “The technology is old and dated. The computers are end-of-life, but (school districts) simply cannot afford to do very much because they don’t have a lot of capital dollars.”

The energy savings from replacing more than 2,500 aging Microsoft Windows-based workstations total more than one gigawatt hour per year, or a roughly $80,000 on the district’s B.C. Hydro bill. The energy savings from desktop computers alone are enough to fully power two middle schools for the year.

“It’s a whole new approach at looking at technology,” Ferrie said.

A typical school like Stelly’s secondary school has about 300 computers connected to the server. The IT department isn’t burdened with updating each one individually when it comes time, rather dealing with the single server alone. Computers are also turned on and off each day via the server, reducing the energy consumption even further.

While there are pros and cons related to the single point of failure, Ferrie said, there is redundancy built into the servers, which are also centrally backed up.

“Let’s say one server did have a catastrophic failure and couldn’t come up and none of the work stations worked, we can replace that server very rapidly,” he said.

The district is also developing Open Student, a student information program based on the same technology. Ferrie hopes Open Student, now being tested at Saanichton elementary school, the current program, BCeSIS.

“It was a bad scenario because it was putting old technology in students’ hands. If we wanted to put new computers on every student’s desk it would cost millions of dollars because they have a relatively short life span. Districts just don’t have the money to do that.”

nnorth@saanichnews.com