The Changing face of computing

Get green with IT

08/23/2010  |  JEFF McNAUGHT

(This is part three of a three part series.)

Throughout today’s school districts, students are encouraged to be environmentally conscious.  Recycling of paper, bottles and cans is now standard practice.  Children are encouraged to compost.  If you take a closer look at the computer labs, however, you will see a different story.  In most labs, you will find bulky PCs that consume a large amount of energy and contribute to classroom white noise.  The heat they generate is also substantial, almost always necessitating air conditioning which results in additional energy costs.  It’s a vicious circle.  But, now there is an alternative for districts to ‘green’ their IT departments and computer labs.  In this article, we will examine more than just powering down computers in the lab to how virtual clients just might be the key to school districts realizing a Green IT philosophy.

Green IT is one of the many buzzwords du jour coming out of the technology world.  A simple definition of Green IT is environmentally-sustainable computing practices.  This is a lofty ideal and one that many businesses and schools are tackling in different ways.  But what we do know is that schools are making decisions about their IT infrastructure with the environment in mind, and it doesn’t have to be a huge investment.  In fact, sometimes the energy savings alone pay for the IT expenses.

PCs – the SUVs of the Computing Industry

PCs have become the SUVs of the computing infrastructure – bulky, unwieldy, high-maintenance energy hogs.  A PC requires a healthcare plan because PCs call in sick and their lifecycle isn’t very long.  A PC requires HR because they require tremendous amounts of maintenance.  The ‘salary’ of a PC is significantly higher than its capital cost, and far higher than that associated with a virtual desktop device.

Virtual clients, however, act and look just like a PC, but have no moving parts (including a fan), they have no storage capability and they get all of their computing power from the network.  Forrester Research estimates that a PC wastes as much as half of the energy that it consumes. A typical desktop PC uses between 60 to 250 watts of power per-hour. Compare this to a virtual client, which uses between 6.6 and 36 watts of power per-hour.  To put this into perspective, 6.6 watts of electricity is the perspective, 6.6 watts of electricity is the equivalent of a single “C7” light bulb on a Christmas tree. 

Furthermore, with an average lifecycle of just 2-3 years, PCs produce a tremendous amount of electronic waste when they are discarded and replaced.  With virtual clients lasting up to 9-10 years, the amount of e-waste saved from landfill is huge.  Here’s an example: let’s say your district has 1,000 computers.  If you simply forgo one purchase replacement cycle, you will eliminate 27 tons of e-waste after six years of use.

The Green Computing Alternative

By merely switching from PCs to virtual clients, schools can maximize energy efficiency, promote recycling and minimize waste – three of the main cornerstones of Green IT.  Most attention in the corporate world has been focused on server virtualization; reducing energy back in the data center.  Large server farms consume huge amounts of energy.  Buildings dedicated to these server farms require a substantial electrical infrastructure.  So, it is natural for large corporations to want to examine how they can reduce energy consumption at the data center.  But, now the desktop is being examined in closer detail. 

Research reveals that the desktop might reap larger energy savings than the server. If you are a district that pays your own energy bills, this cost saving alone is reason enough to make the switch. According to the Climate Group, PCs and related peripherals consumed almost three times the amount of energy as the data center.

Here are some of the environmental benefits of using virtual clients:

  • Less materials and energy are used in production compared to a PC
  • Virtual clients are small in size and weight which reduces the cost and energy required for transportation
  • Less materials also means less to dispose of at the end of its life
  • Up to 90 percent of the unit can be recycled, and up to 99 percent of the packaging can be recycled as well
  • Low heat output means less power needed for air-conditioning systems
  • Virtual clients use up to 90 percent less energy than a PC, resulting in 131,810 fewer Kw/H and energy savings of $11,784 per 1,000 devices

What does this mean for schools? 

The major green benefit of virtual clients is the reduced amount of energy usage. A related benefit is the reduction of white noise.  When we talk to school districts about the difference between PCs and virtual clients, almost all say that they are surprised how quiet and cool the virtual clients are.  They didn’t realize how much white noise the PCs produce until they are gone.  Virtual clients don’t have an internal fan and the labs don’t need extra fans for keeping the room cool because of the heat of the PCs.

An ideal computer implementation would look very similar to the one installed at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, Scotland.  In 2007, the university opened a new campus that met the Building Research Establishments Environmental Method (BREEAM) excellence rating – the highest rating of environmental building standards.  There are strict guidelines to adhere to in order to achieve this rating, including air conditioning requirements.  The heat produced by conventional PCs combined with the heat generated by people simply could not be handled by natural ventilation.  In fact, the human body generates more heat than a virtual client.  “We’ve been shown that a human body of an average person at rest generates 356 BTUs (British thermal units), which converts into 75 watts,” says Fraser Muir, director of Information Services for QMU.  So a better solution needed to be identified.  In QMU’s case, they slashed their heat output by 50% when using virtual clients and met the BREEAM strict air conditioning requirements.  That directly impacts their energy bill by being able to use less air conditioning.  “Even when you add in the power output of the flat screen monitor, each thin computer terminal generates up to 42 watts,” adds Muir.

While having a new facility is something that school districts the world over dream of, we know this is not realistic for most schools. Instead, they are looking at ways to improve their computer lab.  Back on this side of the pond, Brian Seaman, network administrator at Western Wayne School District in Pennsylvania, is removing PCs in his district in favor of virtual clients.

“I believe that what we are deploying today is the future of education computing.  There is a misconception that virtual clients don’t have the ability to handle today’s computing needs – audio, video, multiple screens and the like.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  For any school or university that’s wondered whether virtual clients can make their IT arm a more efficient department -- all while saving time, money and energy costs -- the answer is a resounding ‘yes.’  We are phasing out PCs in favor of virtual clients throughout the district.”

It’s no wonder that Brian was named to the 2009 National School Boards Association’s Technology Leadership Network (TLN) annual list of “20 to Watch” emerging leaders in education technology.

If you are a school or a district serious about adopting a green IT philosophy consider swapping out PCs in favor of virtual clients.  This eco-friendly option will begin to reap immediate cost savings as well as additional environmental benefits for years to come -  the kind of benefits that today’s students will appreciate down the road. 

Jeff McNaught is Chief Marketing and Strategy Officer at Wyse Technology. For information, visit
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