Low-Energy Computing: Why not replace PCs with thin clients?

When it comes to corporate computer networks, it's smart to be thin — even if that means the machines on your employees' desks are dumb.

Thin client computers, made by HP, Wyse and others, are designed to be dumb. These stripped-down terminals run programs like internet browsers and word processors but store data on central servers (unlike conventional PCs which have their own processors and memory).

So what? By delivering numerous business and environmental advantages, these frugal computing devices are starting to vie with the traditional desktop PC. According to HP, "Thin clients provide a higher level of security, can reduce maintenance costs and consume less electricity compared to other desk-based computing products."

Not just for call centers: Why every company should consider thin clients

Traditionally, thin clients were used for the most basic applications, such as terminals in bank branches or call centers. Now, however, their capabilities have expanded, including to multimedia applications. Mobile thin clients are even available for telecommuters.

The energy savings of thin clients are substantial. Adopters say they are saving 25 to 50% on their energy costs. And in one study by Wyse (another leading manufacturer), the payback period for thin client investments averaged 11 months.

In a related environmental benefit, thin clients last longer and use fewer materials than conventional PCs, meaning less e-waste.

Thin computing's not-so-skinny future

With so many advantages, the future of thin client computing appears bright. IT market research firm IDC expects that the worldwide market will grow from 2.9 million units in 2007 to just over 7 million units in 2012.

The question is,  why aren't more companies switching to thin clients? Are we ready to say good-bye to the old-fashioned desktop PC?


  • Richard Barrington | 8 years ago

    The numbers I put together in 2005 when I launched Sustainable Computing at the G8 Summit Gleneagles showed a 90% reduction in materials used in manufacture, 80% less energy consumed across the whole life and 90% less waste being generated. When a thin client can last up to 20 years ( Sunray1 ) that's the equivalent of 5-6 PC refresh cycles avoided.

    If you look where computing is today with almost every application I could want being offered as a service across the network, then the PC is becoming obsolete however there are significant vested interests who make too much money from the current paradigm to make it easy. ( It is also a major threat to internal IT departments who would need 30-40% fewer people by the transition )

    Almost all of the literature put out by the major IT companies has been focused on the datacentre which is about 20% of the overall impact of IT ( although growing rapidly ). The close on 2 billion PC's are the real environmental issue.

  • I agree with you both. I have a genuine enthusiasm for the thin client model but this generations' 1 billion PCs and the incoming generations next 1 billion PCs don't all fit the model. Thin clients are all very well but are they thin enough?

    What we need are 'green screen' type desktop terminals. We need users to have a colour screen, a keyboard and a mouse plus a connection to a PC and be able to run Windows sessions concurrently. There's more than enough hardware capacity in a PC to do this. What's been missing up until now has been the software to do it. Until now … because there is software to do it. (SoftXpand ecoware, BeTwin, Userful – not including a certain american vendor since they use access devices and are thin clients)

    What I foresee are thin client estimates not matching those predicted by IRDC. Not all business are high user PC organisations, and the reason Multiseat computing as opposed to Personal Computing and Server Based Computing is accelerating is because the thin client model struggles at an achievable cost to provide multimedia and certain applications, and the PC struggles to justify it's ever decreasing cost with any level of decent performance and support (a cheap PCs cost is hidden elsewhere in a company's sales cycle or sales portfolio). In our experience the dumb terminal, became the thin client, which is now becoming a slightly defeatured PC! So the thin client model may come full circle again, in the same way mainframe computing has with Multiseating.

    The cloud has a long way to go to convince users. We have had several cloud sellers in the offices and all fell over on delivering graphics applications. Nobody will dispute that server virtualisation technologies from such household names as VMware and Microsoft are a great way forward, reducing power consumption, physical space, numbers of servers required and the list goes on. However to most SMEs with maybe only one or two servers, virtualising these won’t revolutionise their operations and the cost of deployment will often mean that the recuperation period is far too long, making the initial installation nonsensical.

    During the course of its operational lifecycle, every PC will;

    • Cost a certain amount to be delivered to the end-user
    • Need to be installed, and then maintained, by a suitably qualified technician
    • Use an amount of electricity to operate during its lifetime
    • Take up a certain amount of costly physical real estate
    • Generate heat, which in turn costs money to dissipate using air conditioning
    • Require an array of back-office infrastructure and switches to allow them to communicate
    • Need an amount of time for each machine to be maintained and administered
    • Cost a certain amount for disposal at the end of its life
    • Take up an amount of physical space in land-fill

    When all of the above is considered, it is quite clear that ownership of PCs is a serious issue so you're right to evangelise the benefits of the thin client. BUT we need to bring in technologies that actually focus on the PC because it won't go away and perhaps not enforce a paradigm shift to Server Based Computing. Maybe the phrase “A PC is not just for Christmas” would be justifiable in the same way "I'm thin therefore I am" applies to the thin client.

    Multiseating allows SMEs, Corporates, and others to be more recession-proof whilst not having to make technological concessions or major organisational upheavals to implement. The operating costs of IT are often overlooked as a necessary evil. However change is possible and unlike most Green technologies it can be done without making massive capital expenditure. In fact Multiseating (all in with a full network build) is less expensive to procure than its conventional rivals.

    Whilst desktop virtualisation has been developed for years and recently offered by the household names, it has always relied on expensive, specialised back-end server technologies meaning to the typical SME deployment is often prohibitively expensive and support costly. This often dispels the viability of SMEs using such technologies. Certainly to a typical SME, if there is such a thing, the deployment and maintenance costs will offset any operational savings making the exercise at best pointless and at worst financially crippling.

    But consider this; if a larger organisation has 100 servers perhaps serving 3,000 PCs. If they virtualise the server farm down to maybe fifteen it is obvious that this will have a big impact on power consumption, space and hence their carbon footprint. However, if each of these servers is serving 30 end-user PCs and they undergo a desktop virtualisation exercise, perhaps their IT footprint will be reduced from 3000 PCs to only 500! Immediately it is obvious that a desktop virtualisation exercise has the potential to make a much greater impact to both the environment and their operating costs.

    Thanks to Chris Mellor and Tony Mole for contributions to this.

  • Power monitoring power strips… know how much energy you are using…

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