Thinking green? Think thin

Less power-hungry than their PC peers, thin clients are garnering greater attention for their green advantages

Less power hungry than their PC peers, thin clients are garnering greater attention for their green advantages

Verizon CIO John Hinshaw confirmed a juicy green nugget of data in a recent interview: He said the wireless giant has reduced energy consumption by 30% since replacing PCs with Sun Ray thin clients in the company's call centers.

Thinking green? Think thin
Verizon CIO John Hinshaw confirmed a juicy green nugget of data in a recent interview : He said the wireless giant has reduced energy consumption by 30% since replacing PCs with Sun Ray thin clients in the company's call centers.

That will translate to a savings of $1 million per year for Verizon, once the company rolls out thin clients (or some "desktop-less" variants) in its remaining data centers.

"Power consumption is more of a hot topic in the U.S. than it has ever been," says Klaus Besier, president and CEO of thin-client vendor Neoware. "What we see with many more customers today is when they look at thin clients, they're taking more into account power consumption and [related] savings."

With their relatively lower energy requirements compared to PCs -- not to mention other eco-advantages like longer lifespan and smaller form factor with fewer parts -- thin clients are worthy of some serious consideration from companies.

Or perhaps I should say "reconsideration." Thin clients, after all, certainly aren't new, and advantages such as easier administration (fewer admin visits to users' desks) and improved security (data's stored remotely) are pretty well recognized. But thin clients continue to mature, as do the essential technologies that make them all the more viable. That includes virtualization (as InfoWorld Chief Technologist Tom Yager has noted), Wi-Fi, embedded OSes, and software as a service.

Thin, trim, and healthy

Combine all those technologies with the very real concerns over power shortages, high energy bills, and global climate change, and it's no surprise that IDC foresees steady 20%-plus year-over-year growth in the thin-client space, with shipments expected to reach 7.3 million in 2011.

Thinking green? Think thin
"We're expecting positive growth for thin clients based on all the factors you've laid out [i.e. advances of virtualization and 10G, and growing concern about power consumption], as well as ongoing concerns about security and PC management costs," says Bob O'Donnell, program vice president for clients and displays at IDC.

Neoware asserts that companies can save as much as 90% on desktop-computing energy costs by swapping out PCs for thin clients -- depending on what models of hardware you're extracting or implementing, of course. But as an example, a desktop PC consumes as much as 280 watts of power in the amount of time that the high-end Neoware e140 burns up 48. So a company with 1,000 desktops would be spending about $62,000 yearly on power (based on the national KWH rate of $0.0849.), compared to around $10,500 for the clients, according to NeoWare. Savings: Around 50 grand a year per one thousand systems.

For the visually-oriented, here's a chart provided by thin-client vendor Wyse, comparing energy consumption of some of its thin-clients to various PC configurations:

Of course, when you install thin clients, you need servers in the server room to act as their brains. But those power savings are still significant, as noted in a recent report titled "Environmental comparison of PC and thin client equipment" by the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany. "Consumption is at least twice as low, sometimes three or four times lower than the consumption of corresponding PC systems. This applies even with the proportionate offsetting of the energy required by the server and the cooling power required for this," the report says.

Lower energy consumption is one of the clear eco- and monetary benefits. Another green-oriented cost advantage: the life-expectancy of a thin client, compared to a PC. "Thin clients don't need to be upgraded frequently. With thin clients, an OS release does not cause an upgrade to the client, only to the server -- resulting in far less e-waste, since the client can continue to be used longer," says Subodh Bapat, vice president and distinguished engineer for Sun's System Level Energy Strategy, which offers a range of Sun Ray thin clients. "Upgrade cycles of eight to 10 years are common in the thin-client world, as opposed to three to fours years for PCs, with corresponding benefits to the environment in terms of less e-waste."

Speaking of e-waste, Neoware's Besier adds that "Without moving parts, such as a fan or disk drive ... thin clients help companies meet their sustainability targets by eliminating much of the overhead associated with computing."

According to the Fraunhofer study, thin clients also hold a form-factor advntage over PCs, making them less expensive to ship: "They are only 35-40% of the weight of a PC and only take up 19-30% of the volume."

Green issues aren't the only drivers for thin-client adoption. Jeff McNaught, chief marketing office at Wyse, opines that the new and improved Terminal Services features forthcoming in Windows Server 2008 (i.e. the platform formerly known as Longorn) will be a boon a Windows shops running thin clients.

Thinking green? Think thin
Not just about the green

In a simiar vein, Travid Brown, product manager for thin client solutions at HP, credits Windows XP Embedded for more acceptance of thin clients. "Microsoft has come a long way in developing XP Embedded It's the same binary as XP Pro ... and the thin-client experience now looks very much like the desktop experience. It's a lot better than it was a couple of years ago."

Another boon for thin clients: the shift toward 64-bit computing, by companies like Microsoft and Citrix, will spur adoption by sweetening the TCO pot. "Instead 125 users, you can have 250, 300 users on that server, just by changing the software. That has changed the cost equation," says McNaught

Moreover, McNaught says that company's in 2006 had been waiting to gauge VMware's success on the desktop virtualization front, given it success in the realm of server consolidation, and the results look promising. "You take the existing PC, suck all the data off a hard drive and onto the back-end, pop that PC off the desktop, drop a thin client, and the user continues working."

(Test Center Analyst Randall C. Kennedy was fairly impressed by the beta version of VMware Workstation 6.0 -- especially compared to the competition.)

Thinking green? Think thin
There's also the advancements thin clients have undergone since the late 1990s when they were overhyped, notes Wyse's McNaught. "In those days, thin clients didn't do multimedia. Screen-draw capability was good, but not amazing," he says. "Companies like Wyse have been working on technology that will dramatically improve the user experience with multimedia, with voice over IP, with USB peripherals. Users can work in a multiscreen environment."

But green fever and technological evolution alone won't necessarily reduce some company's resistance to thin clients. Thin client vendors acknowledge that there wares won't dethrone the PC anytime soon.

For one thing, the machines are well-suited for plenty of basic applications, such as call centers or other roles where users are continually using the same few apps (e.g. productivity and e-mail). But high-end apps are better left on the desktop. "You would not have a CAD/CAM application running through a thin client," says Besier. "It doesn't even make sense to try to solve that problem. The market is not large enough."

Thinking green? Think thin
Another reason thin clients haven't seem greater adoption, many vendors say, is that companies are set in their ways insofar as purchasing that which is familiar -- in this case, PCs, despite the fact that most desktops generally run at around 3% utilization. "Today's barriers are more of a cultural nature rather than a technical nature," says Sun's Bapat.

But Bapat predicts that "with the lower energy use, lower administration costs, better security, and less frequent capital expenditure outlays for upgrades, we will see more and more organizations making the move to thin-client computing."


Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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