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Saving energy at the workstation

Savings achieved by reducing the electricity consumption of computers may sound like peanuts to some people, but in companies with several hundred employees the kilowatthours can soon mount up to a horrendous electricity bill – not to mention significant CO2 emissions. In two studies, Fraunhofer researchers have investigated the extent to which the use of ‘thin clients’ can save energy.

Thin clients consume up to 50 percent less electricity. It may sound like a new slimming craze, but thin clients are in fact ‘slimmed down’ computers that are used solely for the input and output of data, in other words computers whose functions are limited to those of the mouse, the keyboard and the screen. The data that are accessed by the users of thin clients are stored on a central server along with most of the operating system. The advantage: if a new program is installed on the server or an update is loaded, the software automatically runs on all the thin clients that can access the server. The system therefore requires very little maintenance. As researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Environmental, Safety and Energy Technology UMSICHT in Oberhausen have discovered, thin clients also have other advantages. On behalf of the manufacturer IGEL Technology GmbH, they investigated the manufacturing, utilization and disposal phases of conventional PCs and their slim cousins. “Energy consumption when in operation was up to 50 percent lower than for conventional PCs,” concludes Dr.-Ing. Hartmut Pflaum. “While PCs consume about 85 watts on average, thin clients including their server get by with 40 to 50 watts. In view of climate change and the need to reduce CO2 emissions, this is an important factor.” Generating one kilowatt-hour of electricity with the current energy mix in Germany discharges 0.63 kilograms of CO2 into the atmosphere, as the researchers demonstrate in their study. Thin clients are also the clear winners when it comes to transportation: The devices made by IGEL that were investigated in the study weigh only one third as much as a PC and take up between 11 and 20 percent of the space. As both types of device are largely produced in Asia, they need to be small enough to fit neatly into containers, with no waste of space, for cost-efficient transport across the ocean. Taking into account the size of the server as well, an ‘IGEL’ weighs only 35 to 40 percent as much as a PC and is only 18 to 30 percent as large – even when only 20 users share a server. “This means that at least three times as many thin clients can be transported in a standard shipping container,” says Pflaum. In an earlier study, the researchers had already examined the general economic feasibility of the slim devices. How much do they cost to buy and to operate? The scientists based their research on a typical institute which is comparable to a small to medium-sized company with a staff of 150 to 300 people. “If a company uses thin clients, it can save 44 to 48 percent in comparison to the use of PCs with a software distribution system,” says IT manager Christian Knermann. “Compared to a completely ‘manual’ workstation, the savings can be as high as 61 to 70 percent.” According to Knermann, the utilization of thin clients can lead to medium-term savings with a workforce of 40-50 people or more. A follow-up study on the ‘IGEL’ is now to include a manufacturer in China and a waste management company handling the disposal of the devices. “This will give us access to data that are not usually available to us in what are mostly Asian companies,” hopes IT expert Knermann. “For instance, the amount of waste produced and of energy consumed during production, and the associated emissions.” As the Fraunhofer experts advise, “If you want to consume less electricity and reduce CO2 emissions, you should rely on thin clients for your computing power.” Links to the studies:


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