You wouldn't expect anybody at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to go looking for a less powerful computer. But there is an effort afoot at the university's Sloan School of Management to move faculty and staff away from full-fledged desktop computers and onto dumber, network-based devices known as thin clients.
It's part of a larger movement toward "cloud computing'' - processing files and other software on large, shared server computers, reducing the need to pack a lot of processing horsepower into each user's machine. Reminiscent of the "dumb terminals'' used in early generations of computers, simple thin clients will connect keyboards and screens used by MIT scholars to Sloan's online resources on all kinds of devices, even their personal smartphones and tablets.
Sloan's computer labs have been testing thin clients for about two years. Now the school plans to begin issuing thin clients to faculty and staff members, "slowly moving into replacing physical PCs where it makes sense,'' said Wesley Esser, Sloan's director of information technology consulting and support.
Esser said thin clients will help cut down the expenses associated with maintaining personal computers - a never-ending challenge. "People futz with them and steal them,'' he said. "They break at inopportune moments.''
By contrast, thin clients are cheap, robust, and reliable, because they have almost no computing power. They simply provide online access to the school's data center, which runs the complex academic software used by students and faculty.
In the 1990s, computer industry leaders like Oracle Corp.'s chief executive, Larry Ellison, predicted that inexpensive thin clients would replace traditional personal computers in many businesses and government agencies. It never happened, partly because personal computer prices fell dramatically. Besides, while the thin client devices are cheap, users must upgrade their networks and the servers in their data centers to handle the load.
"A lot of people don't realize how much it takes in hardware and software on the back end to do all this,'' said Steve Buehler, research director for clients and displays at IDC Corp. in Framingham. "It's not as great a price difference as people think.''
On the other hand, a cloud-based system with thin clients is easier to maintain and protect from viruses and other malware that can ravage personal computers. And the entire computing environment can be centrally managed for maximum security and efficiency.
"They take the personal out of personal computing,'' Buehler said. "You can't put up pictures of your wife or a new screensaver, but you sure can get your work done.''
Just 4.4 million thin clients were sold worldwide in 2011, compared with 352 million personal computers, but the market for thin clients is expected to reach 8.3 million units by 2015, according to IDC. This month, the Austin, Texas-based computer maker Dell Inc. purchased one of the top makers of the devices, Wyse Technology Inc., of San Jose, Calif., for an undisclosed sum.
But investing in a cloud computing system isn't just about getting rid of old-school PCs.
It also provides faculty and staff with a new level of mobility, with full access to their server-based data and software through their own laptop or tablet computers.
For students, it means there is no need to go to a campus computer lab to run complex data-analysis software; they can operate the same software remotely via any network-enabled device.
"People work differently now,'' Essen said. "The folks at Sloan, whether they're faculty or staff members, are rarely in their office.''
Because some Sloan students and faculty need the full power of a desktop computer, the university is making use of the thin client system voluntary.
"For the people it suits, it suits them a lot; for the people it doesn't suit, it doesn't,'' Essen said. "Our job is to help them find the technology they need to do their jobs.''