Michigan Tech

MTU News

HOUGHTON, MI--Chris Williams holds up a Tech Express card between her third and index fingers and waves it toward her audience. "Here's Michigan Tech's laptop," she says.

Next fall, MTU students living in the residence halls will be the first college students in the world to have Sun Rays--the ultimate in portable campus computing--right in their rooms. Using this new concept, they will be able open their files and software not only in their rooms, but also from terminals all over campus. And it will be almost as fast and easy as waking your computer up from a nap.

Williams, a senior system administrator in the ME-EM department, explains. Sun Ray terminals don't have their own harddrives; they operate off of centrally maintained servers. Most Unix-using departments on campus now have these servers for their faculty, students, and staff as part of MTU's new Sun Ray system. Participants can access their files on those servers, including their home directories, via Sun Ray terminals located across campus. All they have to do is put their Tech Express cards into a slot on the attached Sun Ray appliance (it's a piece of equipment about the size of a hardbound book installed next to the terminal) and type in their password.

Here's the neat part. Say you're a grad student doing work on a Sun Ray terminal and you want to show it to your advisor. All you have to do is pull out your card, bring it to your advisor's office, stick it into their Sun Ray, and type in your password. Your work will pop up on the screen, just as you left it. You don't have to start up the computer or even open an application; you'll be able to resume your work exactly where you left off.

"Or say you're a student in the ME-EM, and you've worked on and off all day in the lab," Williams said. "At night, you can put your card in the Sun Ray in your dorm room, and the work comes up, just as you left it."

Information Technology has ordered 1,500 Sun Ray appliances to install by fall semester to join the 200 that are already on line here. About 1,000 will be rented to residence-hall students. IT plans to install a number of free-standing Sun Rays across campus, like public telephones, so users will never be too far from their work.

And while Sun Rays will be especially useful for students enrolled in participating departments, they also have advantages for students in other disciplines.

Sun Rays provide e-mail and Web access with absolutely no installation or maintenance hassles. "Just plug it in and it works," Williams said. And if for some reason it doesn't, just bring the appliance to IT for a free replacement. "That means no more problems with computer support, and no more hardware and software hassles for students," Williams said.

MTU got to be the first university ever to offer Sun Rays thanks to its partnership with Sun Microsystems. Michigan Tech has been serving as a Sun Ray beta site for the past few months, and is considered a Sun Center of Excellence for Information Appliance.

So far, all engineering departments except electrical and computer engineering have established Sun Ray servers. The School of Business and Economics and the School of Forestry and Wood Products are also participating, as is the Department of Mathematical Sciences.

Sun Rays don't do everything, and many students will still want their own freestanding computers. Sun Rays aren't compatible with Mac operating systems (a problem for some areas, especially humanities), and they won't work off campus. And residence-hall students who want to, for example, play computer games will still want their own machines.

But for on-campus users, Sun Ray is taking Michigan Tech computing to another level.

"This is as portable as campus computing gets," Williams said. "You don't have to carry a seven-pound laptop around. All you need," she said, presenting her Tech Express card, "is this."