Jun 04 2008

Green IT Takes a Village

Colorado State uses thin clients and servers to help cut back on power consumption.

Colorado State University installed eco-minded information technology in its Academic Village project for its college of engineering not only to cut power consumption but also to increase functionality and efficiency.

From the construction material used in the new buildings to the computer facilities inside, the village was designed and built to have a low environmental impact. In addition to plumbing fixtures with ultra-low water flow, evaporative dormitory cooling systems and organic waste-disposal systems, the village boasts a computer network that aims for similar eco-friendly results.

Opened last fall on the CSU campus in Fort Collins, Colo., the Academic Village incorporates living and learning facilities in a self-contained environment. It has three residence halls, a dining hall and various academic spaces. Within those areas, educational services are delivered directly to students from a centralized computer system. The new facilities serve about 420 students in the university’s engineering and honors programs.

Ultimately, Colorado State hopes students will be more successful with combined living and learning spaces.

To minimize electrical consumption by usually power-hungry computer and network devices and to maximize user capabilities, the university opted for thin-client computer and server technology, says C.J. Keist, network and systems administrator at CSU’s college of engineering. “We have about 500 Sun thin-client computers with network and video cards only” throughout the new installation, from residence halls to classrooms, he says. The computers use only about 24 watts of power each, which is less than 10 percent of what a typical desktop computer uses.

The thin clients are connected to five centrally located Sun servers through a VLAN, Keist says. The VLAN can be extended beyond the Academic Village if needed, he adds, and is aimed at creating a gateway for Windows, Solaris and Unix platforms, depending on students’ needs in a given area.

Students have access to computer learning facilities on the network 24 hours a day, seven days a week, according to the university. Each student has a smart card that allows them to access any thin client in residence halls, labs, study areas, kiosks or the library. The arrangement also gives the university more control over network security, allowing centralized security patching, instead of having to patch hundreds of individual computers.

Flexibility is one of the most important features of the network and systems, he says. The college of engineering uses all three platforms, and each has to be available upon demand to be effective for students’ use. Students who run Linux, for instance, could require simulation software. Matlab or Fortran programming languages are also supported.

Coordinating the installation and use of the new facilities wasn’t without its bumps, however, says Keist. The university had to recalculate how many servers it needed to support the 500 thin-client machines, he says; ultimately the number jumped from two to five. Additionally, the university had to decide on desktop-management software to manage the computers. Most desktop-management platforms used too much memory, he says. The college decided to go with IceWM, which has light impact on computer memory, but allows multiple user interfaces.