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'We are reinventing the economics of computing'

Last updated on: December 29, 2009 12:26 IST

Stephen DukkerUS-based NComputing creates virtual desktops that allow multiple users to simultaneously share one computer. Stephen Dukker, chairman and CEO of the company, says PCs today are so powerful they can easily support multiple users working on multiple applications.

But to run such a multi-user environment one needs appropriate technology -- a missing link to which not many companies have convincing answers. NComputing found a solution a few years ago, a technology which creates a multi-user environment, replacing actual desktops with virtual ones.

It reduces the costs manifold and has found takers the world over and from different sectors -- education, healthcare, retail, large corporations and so on. India has emerged as NComputing's biggest market, next only to the US, where it has won several big projects. Dukker spoke to Amit Ranjan Rai on the technology and the company's India business.

What is NComputing's technology all about?

NComputing is about reinventing the economics of computing. You can say we offer PCs at Rs 3,000. Our low-cost technology is making quite an impact here in India and the world over.

Our technology allows one PC to share its power with multiple users at the same time. Today, even the lowest-cost PCs are very powerful machines. Our technology taps the unused capacity in a PC, enabling up to 10, 20 or even 30 simultaneous users to run their own applications (all from the same computer).

It costs as little as Rs 3,000 per additional user. Even the lowest-cost PCs cost many times more than the price we offer.

A key piece in our technology is the software vSpace which creates inside any PC, from the smallest desktop to giant servers, multiple desktops for each user.

A second piece, called UXP, which is a communications protocol, extracts these desktops from the memory and delivers them to the workstations -- which are not computers but palm-sized, low-power access or client devices that connect to the monitor -- recreating the experience of a real PC for each user.

Because these are not actual PCs, all the economics change.

Every three or four years, you need to upgrade your PCs, but these client devices remain the same -- they simply need to be plugged into the new PC. So you save 90 per cent of your investment -- you change the one PC and not the ten client devices.

But applications today are power-hungry. They consume a lot of memory. Doesn't that affect performance?

No and that's where we are ahead of others. For instance, in case 11 users are connected to a PC with 1 GB memory, our technology only uses 60 to 70 per cent of that memory, that too with users simultaneously working on MS Word, Excel and even multimedia applications.

In the case of a 3GB PC, with 30 users running six different applications, including three streaming videos, the memory used is less than 2 GB.

How?

Our software vSpace is at the heart of our computing. If ten users are running MS Excel, only a copy of Excel runs on the PC and vSpace creates its images for individual users, separating the data and the work done by them. Everyone gets a piece of that one application.

The result is extremely low memory utilisation. Seventy-five per cent of the intellectual property of what we do is in the software vSpace and 25 per cent in the client device.

How has the business been so far?

We have already sold over two million NComputing units to 50,000 customers in over 100 countries in less than two-and-a-half years.

Our largest market is the US, but it is only 40 per cent of our sales. India is our second-biggest market and it has really fallen in love with the technology. Then come Brazil and Mexico.

Again, these are dynamic new economies growing at a fast pace, where our low-cost and simple-to-use technology has fit in well, and been a huge success.

And most of the business comes from the education sector. . .

Yes. In the US, education is first, large corporations are second and small businesses third. In India, while education is first, small businesses are second and large corporations third.

Those three markets are the pillars of our business. Corporations always take two to three years to gauge a new technology, whereas in education the need is critical and so, as they validate our work, they buy in volumes.

But now after three years, we are seeing a spurt in demand from corporations. In the US, businesses are looking at ways to reduce costs because of the economic crisis. They have become price-sensitive and many have opted for our cost-effective technology.

Still, education remains our biggest market.

In the US, we have 15 per cent of the primary education market using our technology. Why schools are our major users is again the economics -- 75 per cent reduction in purchase and operating costs compared to PCs.

Education has been your most important market in India too. Tell us about the business here.

Last year, we won one of the largest education tenders in India, which was to deploy 50,000 NComputing workstations in 5,000 schools in Andhra Pradesh. This is the first time 1.8 million students in government schools have access to computing.

It took us just four months to deploy all the workstations, which shows how simple and user-friendly the technology is. The actual workload of installation and deployment is merely a quarter that of PCs.

Second, the total NComputing equipment cost was only $2 million, but it helped with cost savings of about $20 million. Part of it is capital expense, but  the bigger component is energy savings. If they had installed 100-watt PCs instead of NComputing units (which run on one watt of power), the classrooms would have required a 2.5 KVA power generator for every ten PCs. But for our units, 1.4 KVA generators are good enough.

Under the project, we have deployed our units at both the village and small town levels. The project has been really successful, and recently we received an extension order of an additional 11,000 workstations for another 1,000 schools in the state. In education, we are in seven states and seven others are testing our workstations.

You have also received orders from the Maharashtra Knowledge Corporation for its computer literacy programme. Why did it select you?

Last month, we announced the completion of the MKCL project aimed at providing adult computer literacy at village-level learning centres in Maharashtra.

This is a public-private partnership funded by the Maharashtra government, where schools are operated by village businessmen and the training standards are set by MKCL.

They selected our equipment in May and by August we had deployed 1,000 workstations. Besides the low purchase cost, our equipment was selected by village-level businessmen for its zero-maintenance and the huge savings.

To run, say, 10 PCs in a room, they would have also needed an air-conditioner. But to run one PC with ten of our units, there's no need f or air-conditioning as our devices don't generate heat.

Many villages in the region were not able to hold classes during the day because of the problem of load-shedding. But since NComputing equipment doesn't require much power, small UPSes are able to provide the power to run computers.

What projects in other sectors have you bagged orders for? Have you managed to get business from Indian corporations?

We see business now coming from commercial projects. This year, in cooperation with Wipro, we won the largest commercial and e-governance project in the country.

The Employees' State Insurance Corporation will redo its IT infrastructure by deploying 31,000 of our workstations at its hospitals, clinics and offices. The project will computerise 144 hospitals, 620 insurance branches, 1,388 dispensaries/clinics and 51 regional offices.

It will create one of the largest medical record databases in the world. Moreover, it would be the largest cloud computing deployment in India. So, no computing will actually be done in the offices, users will simply access the computing through the Internet on NComputing units.

A big chunk of our business comes from small and medium businesses. In fact, almost half of our business in India comes from this segment.

While the education deals are big and visible, SMBs are the biggest users in terms of total units sold. We have a number of call centres and BPOs running our workstations. We are working with Maruti Suzuki suppliers, Apollo Hospitals and so on.

Image: Stephen Dukker

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