I spoke yesterday at an Education Forum on the subject of open source software. While I was there I sat in on a discussion led by Sun’s Simon Tindall, on the subject of thin clients. Sun has been beating this drum for some time, not least because it sells suitable servers, though as far as I can tell the take-up has been relatively modest. The argument is usually about manageability, but Tindall majored on the energy aspect. He claimed typical power consumption of 8 watts for a Sun Ray 2, versus maybe 50 – 120 watts for a traditional PC. That excludes the display, plus the additional power consumption of the necessary chunky server for a Sun Ray 2, but there’s little doubt that a thin client approach will save a significant amount of energy.
The views of users were mixed. There were enthusiasts, but also reservations expressed about performance, particularly as multimedia becomes increasingly important. A weakness of these devices is that they have relatively weak graphics, and device support can be a problem.
Even so, if we are serious about reducing energy consumption it strikes me that this area is worth looking at. Windows Vista has some new power-saving features, but also makes the problem worse by using rich graphical effects in the main Windows user interface. Constant disk activity from services like the search indexer cannot help either.
I am not sure about using a thin client for all my work, but I like the idea of minimalist devices that let you accomplish common tasks without firing up an energy-hungry PC or laptop. Much of the time, Internet, email and word processing is all I need, for example. A device like the Asus Eee PC is interesting in this context: small screen, solid-state disk, low power consumption – perhaps even less than a Sun Ray 2 with a typical display. There’s also the OLPC, which draws no more than 15 watts.