Less Then Zero

Zero clients tout durability, manageability and flexibility.

When Miami-Dade County launched an energy-saving initiative, it factored in zero-client computing to tally up significant cost reductions.

“A typical desktop computer utilizes 120 to 150 watts of power,” says René Lopez, senior operating systems manager for the Florida county. “A zero-client desktop uses only about 7 watts, for a savings of about $31 per device each year.” Lopez is overseeing the project to transition 60 percent of Miami-Dade’s 20,000 users to Wyse Technology thin clients over the next five years. The county is using a mix of Wyse C10LE thin clients and Wyse Xenith zero clients and will increase the number of Xeniths in the next wave of deployments.

In the process, IT staff have discovered a wide range of benefits beyond the power savings. “They allow users to roam from place to place and access their desktops from anywhere, whether they’re at the office, at home or on the road,” Lopez says. “Plus, it gives us security benefits and disaster recovery, since in case of an emergency, we can move people to a different location seamlessly.”

Devices such as the ClearCube PCoIP line, Digi ConnectPort, the Sun/Oracle Sun Ray and Wyse P20 and Xenith models strip computers down to their most essential functions. Typically offering a display, mouse and keyboard, and a handful of ports for peripherals, zero clients have no moving parts and no local storage; the data is handled by a server sitting securely in the data center. Because no data is stored on the machine itself, zero clients are ideal when security is paramount, and data is easily recovered if a machine is lost, broken or stolen. Within minutes, a new device can be up and running and connected to a user’s data and configuration on the server.

“Zero clients require little or no maintenance,” says Mark Bowker, a senior analyst at research firm Enterprise Strategy Group. “Because everything is centralized, they lessen the burden of maintenance due to patching, upgrading and installing security updates, greatly streamlining management.”

3–7 watts
Average wattage to run a zero client, which has no moving drives and minimal processing parts. By comparison, typical desktops consume 60 to 250 watts.

Zero clients are well-suited to environments where users need access to a specific set of applications to remain productive, such as the emergency service workers that Systems Engineer Daniel Doty supports at Stanislaus County 911. Doty, whose office serves 22 central California agencies, can’t afford even a minute of downtime, so he is shifting the agency to blade PCs in the data center, accessed through ClearCube I9440 QuadMonitor PCoIP zero clients.

“Our current computers are towers,” says Doty, “stored under the cabinet by the operators’ feet, where we run into all sorts of heat and dust issues. In addition, we need four monitors per PC to display the mapping data, phone information and so on. Those four-port video cards generate a tremendous amount of heat and they fail, which means the loss of a position we can’t afford.”

Moving the computing load to the data center reduces the physical wear and tear on the machines, leading to better uptime. If a blade fails, Doty can switch a user onto a new blade with all their data intact almost instantly.

The success has been so great that Doty finds himself in demand from other agencies around his county. Whenever he shows them what he’s doing with zero clients, he says, “they’re just blown away.”

Light Architecture

Zero clients can be set up in one of three architectures:

Point-to-point: The client is paired with a remote stand-alone PC,
which is useful where space at the workstation is at a premium.

Multiple point-to-point: The client accesses any of several host
machines, typically rack-mounted or blade PCs. Users can easily be switched between machines as needed, minimizing downtime.

Point-to-multipoint: The client accesses a server running several
virtual machines concurrently. Consolidating several hosts on a single server reduces the number of physical machines that have to be
managed and maintained.

Kutay Tanir/Getty Images
Sep 22 2010