Virginia College parent company reports on 'zero-client' experiment
By Kyle Crider
When Education Corporation of America (ECA, the operator of Virginia College and other more specialized schools) decided it wanted to leverage the virtualization of its central data center, it chose its new Ecotech campus in Denver to act as incubator for a cutting-edge zero-client experiment. Ecotech Institute is the first and only college entirely focused on preparing graduates for careers in the rapidly growing fields of renewable energy, sustainable design, and energy efficiency. A zero client, as ECA defines it, is a small device that has no function or hardware other than what is necessary to connect to a remote server.
In addition to minimizing costs, zero-client technology seemed in line with ECA’s business model, including operating with as small a corporate footprint—in this case, warm bodies, not greenhouse gases—as possible. It was a natural progression from such best IT practices as voice over IP, which allow a single data cable to be pulled, rather than pulling separate lines for phone and data.
ECA chose VDI (now VMware) View for the Ecotech experiment, and like all “bleeding-edge” technology the implementation involved a lot of hard work and a lot of long weekends. “There were certain speed bumps we had to overcome,” explains Lloyd Weaver, VP for Corporate IT. While plenty of organizations were using View, very few, if any, were utilizing it to the full extent of ECA’s Ecotech experiment.
The Ecotech deployment was completed in late January 2010. The final results were impressive, by most any metric. For example, ECA saved approximately $500 per workstation by utilizing zero-client terminals rather than desktops. The servers to drive this technology do cost a bit more than traditional servers, but the other savings result in a short payback period. There were indirect savings as well: Since zero clients don’t even have a fan, this loss of heat load allowed for air conditioning savings in all Ecotech labs. Indeed, when energy savings were calculated, a conservative estimate was that Ecotech zero-client technology was saving the equivalent energy of 62 microwave ovens running 12 hours a day, 5 days a week, 52 weeks a year!
Furthermore, zero-client technology solves a number of top-down and bottom-up IT headaches, from consistency through security. The nightmare of constantly updating individual workstations to guard against virus introduction via student USB drives just fades quietly away.
The Ecotech incubator experiment went so well—and proved so surprisingly green—that ECA plans to implement zero-client technology at its new Virginia College campuses scheduled to open in 2011. “ECA has an awareness of—and sensitivity to—environmental matters,” explains Ron Maillette, who functions as ECA’s CIO and CSO2 (Corporate Security Officer and Corporate Sustainability Officer). “We want to ‘walk the talk’ of Ecotech here at HQ and at our other campuses.”
Despite its name, even “zero” client technology eventually produces the dreaded specter of e-waste. However, ECA has solved that problem by partnering with Intercon, a U.S. Department of Defense-certified data-safe, zero-landfill electronics recycler.
Kyle Crider is Manager of Environmental Operations at ECA. He holds degrees in Environmental Studies and Public Administration and is in the UAB Interdisciplinary Engineering Ph.D. program.