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The Green Benefits of Thin Client Computing

Many IT organizations on campus are moving to Virtualized Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) employing thin clients. By centralizing the OS and applications an individual uses on his or her computer on a back-end server, thin clients are easier to secure and support than typical desktop computers or laptops distributed across campus. But beyond these benefits, organizations replacing desktop computers with thin clients dramatically reduce power consumption and carbon emissions related to the production, packaging, shipment, use and disposal of traditional desktop computers.

PCs are power hogs

A typical PC consumes between 30 and 45 KWh per month. With power management features enabled groups on campus have been able to reduce the per PC energy consumption to an average of 25 kWh/month . If one assumes there are 10,000 PCs on campus consuming 25-35 kWh/month the total consumption is 250 MWh - 350 MWh/month which costs Penn between $21,437 and $30,012/month. Over a year this equates to 3,000 - 4,200 MWh ($257,250 - $360,144/year).

According to the EPA, That equals 2,117 to 2,963 metric tons of carbon , enough energy to provide all power needs for between 109 to 153 homes for an entire year!

Thin client installations consume power "like a bird"

A Virtual Desktop Infrastructure including thin clients provides a similar user experience but consumes only a fraction of the energy required to run individual desktops. Factoring in the server infrastructure required for a typical thin client installation, these types of implementations consume between 8 and 14 Watts of electricity . Assuming 10,000 thin clients, this equates to 800 MWh to 1,400 MWh of power per year ($68,600 to $120,048/year). This results in a 66% to 73% reduction in overall power consumption or $188,650 to $240,096 in savings per year. Only 564 to 988 metric tons of carbon is released into the atmosphere during a typical year of running 10,000 thin clients. That means transitioning 10,000 PCs to thin clients on Penn's campus could free up enough electricity to power 80 to 102 homes for a year.

Manufacturing and Shipping add to the PC's Carbon Footprint

The reduction in mass of thin clients means far fewer materials are being mined, processed, and assembled for a thin client. Smaller mass also means less 
packaging. Infosys reports that packing materials for a thin client average between 2.2 and 4.4 lbs. vs. 11 to 22 lbs. for a typical PC. As a result, less energy is spent producing not only the device, but the packaging, and the lighter weight of the device and packaging materials results in substantially less fuel being consumed during the transportation phases of the device's lifecycle.

Thin Clients last longer

With few, if any moving parts, thin clients tend to remain viable for a considerably longer period of time than typical PCs. The typical operational lifecycle of a PC is 3 to 4 years, while a thin client can remain reliable for 6 to 8 years. This means that not only is the device consuming less energy over the course of its entire life, but a single thin client can be used in the same period of time that any 2 PCs would be used. This yields additional reductions in the carbon footprint of thin clients. 

PCs fill landfills and are toxic

Last but not least, PCs contribute millions of tons of waste to landfills each year. In 2009, the last year for which statistics are available, 29.4 million computers were disposed of in the U.S. These computers have components that contain small amounts of heavy metals like mercury, lead, and cadmium that can leech into local water supplies. Their cases are often made from plastics that come from petroleum products. Fortunately almost 62% of the computers disposed of in the US in 2009 were recycled , but even that requires transport to recycling facilities where additional energy is expended to remove the harmful metals for re-use in manufacturing.

While not all thin clients are completely void of such materials, like everything else about thin clients, the amount of heavy metals contained in a thin client is significantly less and the energy spent to transport the device and safely dispose of the toxic metals contained within them is substantially less than that of a traditional PC.


As organizations at Penn plan for the future, the green benefits of thin client computing should be factored into the decision making process. Dramatic reductions in power consumption along with a reduced carbon footprint throughout the entire lifecycle of these devices will yield tremendous benefits in support of Penn's sustainability goals.

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