Gutless and Green Computing

To cut down on energy use and environmental impact, Rockhurst University is introducing scaled down computers that rely on servers to do much of the work.

August 1, 2008

With energy costs climbing, a Jesuit university is pulling the plug on some of its computers.

Rockhurst University, in Kansas City, Mo. is getting rid of many of its traditional desktops, opting instead for bare bones units that rely upon servers to do most of the processing work. In so doing, Rockhurst officials expect to reduce computer-related energy costs by up to 90 percent.

The new computers, which are about the size of VHS tapes, are literally stripped of their guts. They have no need for hard drives or memory, because the servers will store everything instead. That means less material is needed to produce the units, one of many factors that Rockhurst touts as "earth friendly."

Without the traditional bells and whistles, so-called “thin-client” computers run on about one-tenth of the power of normal terminals and also generate less heat, cutting down on air conditioning and electricity bills. As a result, Rockhurst officials “conservatively” estimate $10,000 in savings a year after the new labs are up and running.

While the computers are distinctly different from the models students are used to working with, they’ll have the same functionality, according to Michael Stanclift, a network analyst at Rockhurst.

“To them, it looks just like a regular computer,” he said.

Rockhurst, an institution of about 3,000 students, will convert the 230 desktop computers in its 18 labs over the summer. The converted labs were typically not used for high-end applications like engineering or design, and labs that require those sorts of applications will largely retain the standard models, Stanclift said.

The new computers were purchased from a company called Wyse, which specializes in "thin computing." The university's old computers will be given to local non-profit groups.

Working on a computer with no memory may strike fear in the hearts of some users, but Rockhurst officials say the safeguards of its new “virtual desktop infrastructure” will assure information stays secure. Should one of the new terminals go down, students can log on to any other computer in the network and instantly recover their work, Stanclift said.

Before adopting the new system, university officials consulted with information technology personnel at the Georgia Institute of Technology, which has used thin-client terminals as well. By and large, however, Rockhurst “kind of had to blaze our own trail,” Stanclift said.

The move toward more streamlined computing, which is offered by thin client technology, is actually a return to a bygone era. Marc Hoit, vice chancellor for information technology at North Carolina State University, notes that early computing relied upon “dumb terminals” with few frills, allowing hefty mainframes to do the bulk of the work. That changed, however, with the “PC revolution,” which equipped individual computers with much greater capabilities, he said.

As networks have grown more powerful, however, the once-antiquated style of computing is now more effective and, from a cost perspective, sometimes more desirable, Hoit said.

“It’s kind of come full circle,” he said.


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