Advances in modularity enable on-the-fly PC upgrades

Vendors are slowly developing features to extend the life of machines and components

Often lumped in with a new computer's laundry list of green features, among such phrases as "Energy Star compliance," "ROHS compliance," and "power-saving technology," is the term "modularity." From a sustainability standpoint, it's an intriguing word, suggesting not only a high level of recyclability -- which is good for the environment -- but also the promise of upgradeability, which can be tantalizing to both friends of the earth and friends of the dollar.

Vendors have made strides in terms of designing machines to be easier to dismantle so that components can be reused and individual materials (different types of plastics and metals, for example) can be sorted and properly recycled. To a lesser degree, however, vendors are improving on the upgradeability front: designing machines in such a way that individual components can be easily swapped out and replaced, ideally without a costly, time-consuming visit from a technician.

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Notably,  the latter type of modularity isn't a particularly new noting, according to Paul Prince, director of core architecture and technologies at Dell: "It's been true for the last 15 years. People have said, 'Modularity will solve all these problems.' But when you look at what you can actually reuse and what you give up to reuse it, it ends up not always making sense. It's not going to take over the world. The idea of reuse where possible is a great thing."

Tool-less upgrades
One modularity feature that is common among servers but just arriving in desktop machines is tool-less design. As the name suggests, the PCs -- such as HP's Z Series workstations and Lenovo's ThinkStations -- are designed in such a way that an admin or end-user can open up the chassis with their bare hands and swap in new memory, storage, power supplies, motherboards, and other components. New pieces simply slide into place.

Easing the process, the interior of the systems are free of wires, while small levers and clips help a user determine what goes where. "If, by chance, you had to upgrade from a standard power supply to an 800W power supply because you were adding more graphics, you could do it in thirty seconds," said Terry Pilsner, director of R&D for Workstations at HP.

Notably, processors aren't as easily swappable as other parts, according to Pilsner. If you need to bring in a new CPU, it has to be in the same family as the one you're taking out. "Next-generation processor chip sets require the redesign of PCs from the ground up. The same is true of workstations," he said.

Thus, when Intel or AMD come out with a new set of chips that your end-users simply must have, a full hardware refresh is generally necessary.

Still, the level of modularity and easy upgradeability of tool-less design fits under the sustainability umbrella for a couple of reasons. First, it extends the lifecycle of the machines: Companies can easily upgrade systems they already own to address changing end-user needs, rather than opting for the easier -- yet more wasteful -- route of buying new gear. Second, it means the systems are far easier to dismantle and recycle at the end of their lifecycle, which helps reduce the global problem of e-waste.

Notably, HP's laptop workstations don't quite have that level of easy modularity. "Notebooks are inherently much more complex," explained Pilsner. "You have to bolt things down."

Components such as hard drives and memory can still be swapped by a user, though a screwdriver would be necessary. Changing a CPU or graphics card, however, would require an HP technician.

Additionally, I've only seen this type of tool-less design available in workstations -- at least for machines available in the United States. Ideally, this sort of modularity will become the norm in standard desktop machines as well -- if vendors are willing to take the dent in their computer sales.

Technology outpaces modularity
When it comes to waste among end-user systems -- specifically laptops -- docking stations are another culprit. Unfortunately, a USB-esque, one-size-fits-all docking station doesn't exist that would allow you to plug in any machine from any vendor. Further, when moving from one model to another model by a specific vendor, a new docking station might be necessary, which translates to added expense and hardware waste.

Fortunately, some vendors have been addressing this issue. While Dell was rolling out yearly upgrades to its D Series of Latitudes, for example, customers were able to reuse the docking stations -- along with the existing components such as battery modules and plug-in CD modules -- they already owned, according to Paul Prince, director of core architecture and technologies at Dell.

When the company moved to the E Series, however, "it was time to break compatibility," Prince says. "We were leaving too many capabilities on the table."

Changes included a smaller docking station connector and an upgraded design for some of the CD and DVD modules. Like the D Series, the E Series has evolved, and the built-in compatibility and modularity remain.

Similarly, HP's Pilsner says that HP's notebook docking stations are designed for longevity, though the company found it necessary to revise its docking station after sticking with its previous model for five years.

It may be some time before a company can hang on to the same fleet of machines for several years, performing quick and easy hardware upgrades, component by component, as user needs change. That would surely be a more sustainable alternative to shipping dozens or hundreds of computers off for recycling every couple of years to make room for the arrival of new machines.

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