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Friday, September 4, 2009

ICPSR: Then and Now: Desktop Workstations

In many ways the world of desktop computing has changed very little over the past seven years at ICPSR. Each ICPSR staff member receives a t workstation that includes a tower, display, keyboard, and mouse. In general we did not assign staff peripherals such as cameras, speakers, or external storage in 2002, and we still do not today.

The front face of the display is about the same size now as it was then, 17 inches. Some staff today may have a 20" widescreen display, but the overall square footage for display hasn't changed much. However, the display on a desktop workstation today is much lighter than it was in 2002 (LCD v. CRT), and greater screen resolution makes the display feel larger still. We also have more staff who are interested in funding an upgraded display such as dual monitors or a single very large display. So perhaps if the metric is area, things have changed very little, but if the metric is weight or number of pixels, things have changed quite a bit.

The appearance of the workstation itself has changed little. In 2002 each person had a tower-style workstation under the desk, and most people have a machine with the same general shape. In 2002 most of the machines had a Dell nameplate, but today they are much more likely to have an H-P template. The price difference wasn't a driver for us to move to H-P; the quality control of the Dell tower systems had really slipped in our experience.

The 2002 Dell was likely a GX 240 with 256Mb of memory, and was running Windows 2000 or Windows XP. The 2009 H-P is 4Gb of memory, and some sort of dual-core processor. It still runs Windows XP.

The 2009 workstation likely has a huge local disk - it's difficult to buy a machine with a small disk - that is largely unused (at least for business reasons). The disk will have a system partition which most staff can't modify, and which holds applications and the operating system. The rest of the disk forms a second very large partition, but since we don't back up desktop workstations, it shouldn't be used for most work processes other than as scratch space. Valuable work products are stored on our NAS, the central file server.

The next step for desktop workstations at ICPSR may be to begin using ultra-thin clients: machines that have little storage and processing power because all of the heavy lifting takes place in the cloud. In some ways this is a return to the X terminals that were so popular twenty years ago.

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