The TeleInfoCentre makes possible the vision of a connected computer accessible to every family. What makes the TeleInfoCentre unique is its approach to solving the rural computing challenge. It brings together a number of innovations to help create an infrastructure that is both affordable and user-friendly.
The three innovations that it leverages are: server-centric computing to enable the use of low-cost computers as thin clients, Linux and open-source software to bring down the cost of software, and WiFi to solve the connectivity problem. (As we will see shortly, WiFi will currently get used as a LAN solution to extend the reach of the TeleInfoCentre beyond a single room, and later will be used as a wide area network solution to provide a high-bandwidth solution to inter-connect multiple villages.)
The TeleInfoCentre consists of a computer-cum-communications centre. It has 3-5 computers connected together in a LAN, in a single room. The multiple computers ensure that the computers themselves do not become a bottleneck villagers should be guaranteed to get access to a computer whenever they want it. Also, by locating them in the village, we ensure that they do not have walk much to use them access to computing is no more than a few minutes, rather than a few kilometres. This will make them think of computing as part of their lives a utility, available on-demand.
One of the computers in the TeleInfoCentre computers works as a thick server, and does the processing and storage. The others are low-cost, low-configuration thin clients. The idea of server-centric computing using thin terminals as desktops is not new. Mainframe computing uses a similar approach. Even in the Novell era of the late 1980 and early 1990s, PCs would boot off the server. This approach on thin client-thick server computing simplifies the management dramatically desktop hardware never needs to be upgraded, software and content updation only needs to happen in a single place on the server, and all the thin client desktops can be administered from the server.
By using a server-centric computing architecture, it becomes possible to bring down the incremental cost of each new client computer from Rs 25,000 to as little as Rs 5,000. The thin client works as a network device. It lights up in the presence of a network, just like a cellphone or cable-enabled TV. In this case, the network is the LAN, requiring the presence of a thick server at the other end. Think of the thin clients as Rs 5,000 PCs or 5KPCs. The question is: how do we get PCs at these price points?
One approach is to look at (re-)using older computers. Since the thin client requires little more than a 100 Mhz processor and 32MB RAM to provide the performance of a new 2 or 3 Ghz desktop, one can consider recycling Pentium I and II machines from the developed world as thin clients. Countries like USA and Japan are disposing a few years old computers in the millions annually as they upgrade to newer desktops. These trashed systems become e-waste in those countries and create an environmental problem in their disposal. They can now be shipped to countries like India where they get a new life as thin clients. These PCs are available for prices ranging from USD 60-70 (excluding shipping and local duties).
Tomorrow: TeleInfoCentre (continued)