Thursday, June 4th, 2009 at 1:51pm

Green Computers, Green Schools

Posted by Jordan Erickson

By: Jordan Erickson
Logical Networking Solutions

Part I: History

When I was growing up, the student technology infrastructure at Spring Creek Elementary consisted of three Apple IIe computers in the main library, with dual floppy disk drives and green monochrome monitors. Every day, the same few kids, including me, gathered around them during recess to play games. We all waited to enjoy hit titles such as “Oregon Trail”, “Lemonade Stand” or “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego”.

The beginning of the personal computer era was an awe-inspiring time for those who understood, even if just a little, what they were capable of doing. The Apple IIe was amongst the very first personal computers available to the general public, and to most they were a novelty at best. Needless to say, these now ancient computers harnessed a mere fraction of what computers are capable of today.

Computers have become an integral part of our lives. Many of us don’t go a single day without using one. We have harnessed the potential of these machines in ways that would seem utterly unimaginable to previous generations. We use them to play incredibly realistic video games, to manage our finances, to write essays and even put our home movies on DVDs. We have tied the majority of the world’s computers together in a global communications network called the Internet. We have used the concept of computers to create devices like MP3 players, cell phones and advanced video game consoles. There is seemingly no end to what computers can do, and every day a new technology or service emerges that allows us to do even more, on top of being more efficient at what we already can do.

I’m happy to say that my technical consulting company has kept me afloat since its inception, even in this tough, unpredictable economy. The largest of companies give me the dark, murky visual of massive ships sinking in a sea of turmoil. As for the rest of the world, we’re now inheriting the consequences of a badly captained vessel. Business in general has slowed lately. It’s plain and simple, really – In my case, clients require budgets cuts due to decreased revenue, therefore our income decreases as a result. This is simply the spinning of the economic turbine. At first glance, it seems as though a bearing has failed – it’s headed for a screeching halt, and might never spin as fast or as reliably as it once did…but I have faith – faith that this slowing down gives us the precious time we need to look out the window and contemplate our upcoming direction, despite the horrible sound coming from beneath us.

Part II: Energy

These days, you can’t hop in your car, turn on your TV, get online or even shop for groceries without hearing or seeing something about ‘going green’. It has quickly become commonplace for government, businesses and consumers alike to practice better energy efficiency, waste reduction and air quality management with everything we do. And for good reason, too – our global economy has created a world-wide community, and we’re all in it together. Toys made in China can affect the quality of life in Europe, pesticides used in Argentina can affect the health of people in the U.S., and greenhouse gas emissions from Australia can affect a diminishing rainforest in Brazil. The real truth is that everything each one of us does effects our planet as a whole.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), atmospheric CO2 concentrations by 2100 will be in the range of 650 to 970 ppm—more than double or triple preindustrial levels. As a result, the global average surface temperature will likely rise between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees Celsius between 1990 and 2100, an unprecedented rate of increase. Energy generation is the single largest factor in carbon emissions being released into our Earth’s atmosphere – it counts for 42% of all carbon emissions on the planet, even above transportation1. Along with moving away from coal-based generation, increasing electronic appliance efficiency will play a major role in reducing the amount of CO₂ being introduced to our atmosphere.

A few years ago I started investigating a technology involving the GNU/Linux operating system and thin-clients. Thin-clients are basically PCs that boot not from a local hard disk to load their operating system and applications, but over the network from a central server (thin-client computing is also referred to as “Server-based computing”). This gives you the ability to have multiple disk-less PCs that utilize the power of a central server for the entire session, from boot to shutdown. This is interesting for a few different reasons, one primarily being that thin-clients require very little power to run. Since everything happens on the server, the thin-client is simply required to display what the server sends to it. This means thin-clients can have low-powered processors, minimal memory compared to traditional PCs, and no spinning disks. With low power requirements comes low power supply requirements – and since thin-clients require such little power, their CPUs and power supplies require no fans. In fact, thin clients typically have no moving parts whatsoever.

Let’s expand on energy consumption for a minute. A typical thin-client is powered with a mere 5-20W (watts) of electricity. In comparison, a typical off the shelf desktop/tower computer’s power supply is rated at 350-500W. This means that you can either use the equivalent of 5% of a single 100W light bulb to do everything you do on your computer every day, or up to five 100W light bulbs. In comparison with a thin client, that’s a lot of wasted energy!

On top of this basic idea, it is notable that typical desktop/tower computers’ power supplies are extremely inefficient compared to a thin-client. Even today, a typical computer power supply is only 70-75% efficient. That means if you want a 75% efficient power supply to produce 75W of D/C power, 100W is required – and the remaining 25W is converted into heat. That’s more energy wasted in a PC power supply than what a typical thin-client computer requires to operate! Also, there is the issue of cooling – in a school computer lab with 35 computers, our conservatively estimated 875W of heat is introduced into the room, and air conditioners are required to cool the space! All of this wasted energy equates to wasted money that could be going to much needed school supplies for students and teachers, equipment for staff, and countless other resources. This is a big deal.

Part III: Transparency

It should be of no question at this point that reducing energy consumption is integral to the plan of becoming a greener planet. However, the question must be raised as to what the real world differences are between using a thin-client versus a “normal” computer. I will try to outline these differences below.

When you sit in front of a typical thin-client, you’ll probably notice a few things right off the bat. Most likely, you’ll first notice that a thin-client is about the size of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. That’s because they are typically very small systems (hence the term thin) – and they should be, since they have very few requirements to operate versus a full blown computer (as described above). You’ll also notice the lack of noise coming from it – as also described above, thin-clients are typically fan-less, disk-less, utterly silent computers. A computer lab full of 50 thin-clients, all powered up and running, still produce 0 (read: zero) noise. It’s nice to know that the only undesirable noise you’ll ever hear from a typical thin-client computer lab are from chatty students!

Given the incredible physical differences between a traditional computer and a thin-client, the experience you have while using a thin-client is virtually indistinguishable from using a desktop system. Responses to input are snappy, and programs load quickly. This is due to the programs running on the server, and the screen contents are simply exported to the thin-client over the network. It’s like having a very fast computer with a bunch of keyboards, mice and monitors strung directly from it. Even with all graphical information flowing over the network from the terminal server to the thin-clients, most people forget that they are actually sitting in front what is considered a remote display to a system tucked far away, most likely in another room or building. This is due to the amazing nature of truly network transparent graphical environments and protocols.

Another benefit of using thin-client computing is how the server itself handles resources. Instead of 35 separate computers, running 35 separate operating systems, with 35 separate copies of office/web browser/etc. software you wish to run on them, you have 1 server. 1 Operating system. 1 application to install, upgrade and maintain, for the entire school. You might think, “Well that means you need 35 times the memory and processor power to handle all of those user sessions!” Yet, the reality is that most all of your required session and application memory is shared across user sessions. That means only one copy of each application is resident in memory, and all users share that single resource. It is not uncommon to have a server with 4GB RAM easily handling 35 concurrent user sessions, all with fully featured desktop environments and productivity software running. And with the incredible parallel processing capabilities of multi-core CPUs these days, a 2x dual/quad-core CPU server can handle all of this without ever hitting the ceiling. This truly is green computing – it’s centralization and transparency at its best, intelligently utilizing the full potential of our technology.

Part IV: Timely

After a successful installation of LTSP at a local after-school kids club, I e-mailed the current Director of I.T., Randy Coleman, at RVUSD where I used to attend Spring Creek Elementary. It was a casual note, simply asking if he had ever heard of the Linux Terminal Server Project, and if so, if he had ever considered using it at his schools. A very prompt reply came back within a couple of hours, with Randy offering to meet with me and discuss further. Needless to say, I was excited to showcase this exciting technology that could benefit the same schools I went to so many years ago.

Now, 7 elementary schools at Rincon Valley Union School District are running LTSP. School computer technicians are able to utilize their time more effectively by guiding students through their lessons, instead of fixing broken computers. Students have their own accounts on the system, where they can customize it as they see fit – which gives them a great sense of ownership. They can go to any computer they want to that’s a part of the LTSP network, whether it be in the lab or in a classroom, and will get their same environment and files – it gives “roaming” a new, more complete definition than previous attempts by different software vendors.

I am very proud of what has been accomplished so far with Linux and thin client computing in my area. Our economy is indicating that we need to be smart about how we spend our money, and our planet is indicating that we need to cut down on global warming. To me, Linux thin clients are a no-brainer here. We need this technology deployed to our schools. It is the best use of the little funds we have which will allow our children a smart, sustainable learning experience with computers and technology.

When you think about the future, think thin!

– Jordan Erickson
Owner, Logical Networking Solutions

© 2009 Logical Networking Solutions: I.T. and Networking Specialist, Lake County, CA