How a virtual desktop deployment can help you go green

You can save the environment by recycling, taking quick showers -- and even deploying virtual desktops. Check out these ways to go green with VDI.

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There are a lot of in-vogue ways to help protect the environment, but you probably didn't realize that implementing virtual desktops is one of them.

Using less of anything means saving cash too -- so reducing your organization's carbon footprint with virtual desktops can be both economically and ecologically sound. Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) can lend a hand by reducing power consumption, hardware and maintenance energy.

Why physical desktops are inefficient

Watt for watt, PCs are not as power-efficient as we like to think. VMware claims that underutilization is the problem: Physical desktops and servers use only about 8% to 15% of their actual capacity and spend most of their time doing nothing.

More on reducing PC power consumption

Four ways to lower data center power consumption

How cloud computing reduces power consumption

Granted, some work has been done to address PC power consumption inefficiency. Power management features, such as automatic dimming displays or standby mode for machines during periods of low use, have helped close the utilization gap. Other innovations, including power supplies that waste less of their utilization as heat, also help.

But the underlying problem remains: The conventional PC, unless it's being used constantly, can be remarkably inefficient. This doesn't just mean wasted electricity, but also additional cooling and the energy consumed by maintenance (for instance, driving out to a branch office to fix a balky desktop).

Decreasing PC power consumption and hardware

A virtual desktop deployment allows you to be environmentally friendly in a number of ways. The most obvious way is by replacing legacy desktops, which can casually consume upward of 100 W, with thin clients that are far less power-hungry. Hewlett-Packard's t150 Zero Client, for instance, starts at $89 per seat (minus peripherals or display) and uses a mere 2.5 W.

If a user has his or her own notebook PC or tablet, that can be turned into a thin client by simply adding the necessary software. There's no need to provision discrete hardware. Notebooks consume a good deal less power than a full PC (although still more than a thin client), so they're economical for that reason as well.

In addition to power and hardware savings, here are some other ways virtual desktops are green:

  • Thin clients require fewer raw materials to build. That's because many common desktop PC elements such as drive bays are not included.
  • Thin clients can be provisioned or deprovisioned much more quickly than full PCs. Less time spent setting them up and tearing them down translates into less waste.
  • Thin client devices are far more compact, which means workstations can be set up in environments where a full-blown PC might have taken up too much space.
  • Mobility: With a thin client, users aren't confined to a location, which means their movements (and energy expenditures) can be more efficient.
  • Thin clients have a longer lifespan than PCs, partly because they have fewer moving parts or none at all, so you save space, power and money in the long run.

How infrastructure setup affects savings

The exact architecture for a virtual desktop deployment varies. The most common setup involves a back-end server providing virtual desktops to a variety of clients. VMware View works this way, for instance. Another way is to use a regular PC instead of a server running virtualization software. NComputing, for example, allows many users to share a single desktop PC's resources across multiple thin clients. The maximum number of clients varies depending on the PC, but that means a single PC can support up to around 100 users.

Although these setups can help you go green in the enterprise, don't forget that there are some cost disadvantages to using a virtual desktop in lieu of a conventional one. Some applications might not run as well in a virtualized environment, especially media-rich apps that make the most of client-end processing.

Plus, some thin clients lack proper support for high-bandwidth USB devices. Thin client hardware varies wildly in terms of what it can deliver to the user: screen sizes, multimedia capacity, device connectivity and smart-card support. Finally, while using an old PC as a thin client does keep hardware out of landfills, it may not work as a power-saving measure: Older hardware tends to be less efficient in its power consumption.

This was first published in October 2012

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