Persistence of technology... Part 2: Sustainable hardware

Like many science techies, I like to keep up with the latest technology. But I also have a concern for the environment. So I end up with a museum of old computers in my basement and attic. I hate to put them in a landfill, yet what can I do with them? Fortunately a few electronics recycling organizations have been founded and some manufacturers have offered to bear the cost of recycling consumer electronics. In addition to this, software such as the linux terminal server project allows new uses for old x86 hardware.

But that's solving the problem after the fact. Is it possible to design long lasting computer hardware? I have heard legends of a particular company's server running unmaintained in a bricked over wiring closet for years. Should we expect hardware to last 25 years or at least 10? Is it too much to expect that our computer's case and power supply can be reused for two Moore's law doublings or at least through the next OS upgrade? Some companies rely on proprietary standards and planned obsolescence to force customer upgrades before they would otherwise be necessary. But shouldn't consumers demand the ability to upgrade components, software and services without having to visit the landfill every eighteen months? Moore's observation has held over the past couple of decades, but as this curve flattens and disposal costs increase, it will become less cost effective to replace hardware on such a short time scale.

When we need a brighter or more efficient light we don't have to replace the lamp or light fixture we just replace the bulb. Twenty years ago we expected this level of servicability from other appliances. We could give a television a new life by replacing a $10 tube. Individual components were much less reliable but the end product tended to last longer. Today a blown $1 fuse or dead battery is likely to mean that your treasured piece of technology will end up in a local landfill mountain or polluting the devloping world

Open Standards

My career as a "desktop mechanic" started in a surplus electronic parts store and progressed to the servicing of Zenith 286 PC hardware. These computers used a passive backplane which made it possible to repair or upgrade video, CPUs, disk controllers and memory by simply swapping cards. There was no need to replace the case or motherboard. But when bus standards and case form factors changed these computers were also condemed to the landfill. Open standards are the key to sustainable hardware. Imagine if the internet were based on a proprietary protocol which was tied to a single vendor's OS and hardware. That vendor would have incentive to frequently change or "upgrade" the protocol but each change could force millions of consumers to replace their hardware.

The sustainable computer

How would I design a computer that minimised its landfill footprint? When I wrote this a couple of weeks ago I wasn't sure it was worth publishing. I thought maybe no one else would care about this. But now I see that the hyper transport motherboard in Sun's new Java workstations appears to be designed for modular expansion. And Sun isn't stopping here. What if there were no motherboard at all but instead a collection of electronic scrabble tiles that fit together to make a computer. If you needed a bigger cache or faster CPU, just replace a tile. Someday maybe you'll only have to recycle a 2 centimeter semiconductor square that weighs a couple of grams instead of a 30kg box.

Yet another green advantage to ultra thin clients

I've been using a SunRay as my primary work desktop since I began working at Sun in the spring of 2001. I think they're one of the coolest bits of technology we have and I was happy to learn that they use very little electricity when compared to the typical desktop P.C. But when I started to think about designing a sustainable IT infrastructure it struck me that ultra-thin clients are ideal. When Sun Ireland upgrades to a new OS, do we send a bunch of these to the landfill? Heck no, the sysadmin upgrades the OS or software on the server, the clients do not change at all! When we want to upgrade hardware, can just add another CPU or more storage to the existing server. There's seldom need to swap out old server hardware and there is certainly no need to swap out clients! In the unlikely event that we decide to upgrade the clients, instead of scrapping hundreds huge boxes full of fans, heavy metals, 300W power supplies, motors, wires and gears... we recycle a little box with no moving parts. Any organization which uses SunRay servers can immediately reuse another company's SunRay clients by simply plugging them into their own corporate network.

I'm not sure whether to put this entry in the Environment or the Sun category. I think it's pretty cool that it would fit into both!

"Is it possible to design long lasting computer hardware?" - Sure it is. It just needs a little a different market segment to grow up in. I'm looking for someone to talk about a new shape of a computer, for a special group of users. Unfortunatly, they all think, I'm out of mind. Who shall I talk to?

Posted by J. Iwaniuk on August 10, 2004 at 07:52 AM GMT+00:00 #

I don't know, embedded device companies and server companies seem to have a deeper understanding of the need for longevity. Beyond this, maybe someone at the Long Now Foundation?

Posted by bnitz on August 10, 2004 at 08:28 AM GMT+00:00 #

Its tha fan...... and its a problem, a big problem. A decent mag bearing fan is close to $10, a cheap consumer grade one is well under $1. The cheap one might run a year at 24/7 without too much noise if the environment is clean and the temps are low. The good one might last 5 years. Then again if you put it behind a wall, and seal it off so no dirt or dust gets in there.......

Posted by Ron on August 10, 2004 at 08:51 AM GMT+00:00 #

Yeah, maybe I should write another article specifically about hardware reliability. The effect of moving parts, heat, semiconductor channel migration, electrolytic cap shorts, cosmic rays and other factors on MTBF... Of course you're the expert on hardware! NASA also seems to know a bit about making a reliable computer. Does anyone remember VGER from that highly forgettable star trek film? When it was launched, Carter was U.S. president and a significant number of web jockeys weren't even born!

Posted by bnitz on August 10, 2004 at 09:09 AM GMT+00:00 #

I tend to think that he large hardware vendors will never let this happen :( All of the major hardware vendors make cash on hardware and services, and deploying more gear helps there bottom line. I have always wondered why companies bank of the 3 years life cycle for most computing platform? If only this life cycle could be extended without breaking the bank. Some of the older Sun hardware (220Rs, 420Rs, etc) is more than sufficient to push 95% of production web/app workloads, but folks (mgmt) still seem to think faster is better.... ughh. Now if we could get software development efforts to focus on optimally using hardware, we could get additional life out of our computing platforms.

Posted by Ryan on August 15, 2004 at 06:55 PM GMT+00:00 #

Hardware vendors will have an incentive to make equipment servicable rather than disposable if they are taxed on disposal of the product _OR_ customers are made aware of the typical lifespan/disposal cost of the product. For example, my $60 Sears dehumidifier lasted 10 months and cost $40 to dispose of so it's a $10/month product. Wouldn't it be nice if every product had this detail on the price tag?

Posted by bnitz on September 08, 2004 at 07:35 AM GMT+00:00 #

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