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Go ‘Thin’ for IT Savings

10 December 2010

Virtualised and cloud based IT infrastructures don’t require noisy, costly and carbon wasting PCs because all the data and applications they need to process can reside on centralised servers, data centres or in the ‘cloud’, as Lisa Layzell explains

THE FACILITIES MANAGER’S role is increasingly focused on providing desktop IT that must be green, cost efficient and flexible to the needs of staff with more mobility. IT departments are under pressure to deliver the same, if not higher, computing performance and productivity within the same or reduced budgets.
The facts about current IT efficiency speak volumes. Recent analyst research has reported that budgets have generally remained flat since 2005 even though IT has become increasingly critical to the performance of the business.
The stakes in IT’s race to meeting staff mobility requirements are also high. In Cisco’s recent Connected World Report, a global study of 2,300 workers and IT professionals, two-thirds of respondents said they would take a job with less pay and more flexibility in device usage and mobility, over a higher-paying job with less flexibility. In sustainability terms, the Carbon  Reduction Commitment is driving the largest energy consumers in the country to save energy, but in-fact all sizes of organisation are starting to realise that green IT can also mean lean IT, certainly in terms of energy consumption.
The facilities manager’s IT responsibilities are largely focused on desktop IT provision for staff and ensuring connectivity. It is largely still the norm for premises to standardise on desktop or notebook PCs. For the average desktop IT user, the PC has become the ubiquitous interface with information. It is taken for granted that a PC is necessary in order to perform most jobs effectively.
In reality PCs are non-essential and in many cases, cumbersome and excessive in today’s economic climate. The primary desktop IT goal of any organisation is consistent and reliable provision of information access in the most economically viable, environmentally sustainable and flexible way possible. I believe that to achieve these aims, facilities managers and their counterparts in IT need to reject their reliance on PCs and explore other possibilities.
There are four key cornerstones that define my vision of the shape of IT provision. We have examined three of these so far; cost efficiency, carbon control and user flexibility. The fourth is security. Facilities managers must also take responsibility, alongside IT, for user level security. IT desktops can be a ‘gaping wound’ in many corporate IT infrastructures, because this is where people and IT meet. Staff are the biggest asset to an organisation but they are also the biggest potential risk.
While change may need to accelerate at the desktop IT level, a high velocity transformation is already happening at the corporate IT level. It is one set to open up new possibilities in desktop IT provision too. Organisations are investing increasingly in virtualisation and cloud computing in order to gain both better usage and efficiency rates out of the IT they house, but also turn IT into a partially outsourced service to reduce the hassle of its maintenance.
Server virtualisation is driving a trend that says IT and data does not have to be managed around the capabilities of individual physical machines, which are inherently limited and create many pockets of under-utilised IT capacity. Nowadays, ‘virtual’ servers can be created by balancing loads across the physical server infrastructure.
Virtualisation of IT is also creeping into the desktop. It adopts the same principles, whereby users’ personal desktops are not ‘fixed’ to specific machines. This allows far greater flexibility in personal computing and workspace sharing and enables core software applications to be published to users’ desktops in a virtual environment rather than being installed on a physical and dedicated PC.
With cloud computing, software, storage and in some cases entire IT infrastructures are destined to reside outside the responsibilities and four walls of the organisations they service.
The role of IT and the CIO is moving from being one of engine room, to library. IT no longer needs to be an internal energy source that powers the organisation. Rather, a provider of access to the right information, to the right people at the right time, Cloud allows CIOs to procure IT as a service on a pay as you go basis without any of the maintenance hassle and cost of ownership.
The desktop ripple effect of this is that because many business software applications, data storage requirements and general computing power is piped into the organisation on a needs basis, the IT desktop can become lighter. We no longer need processing power under our desks but simply a reliably connected ‘window’ into the world of services provided via the cloud.
Considering all of this, in my view, continuation of a PC centric desktop IT strategy is both unnecessary and puts your organisation at a significant disadvantage from an economic, environmental, security and productivity perspective. PCs were borne out of a need and desire for ‘personalised’ computing but with its origins in an age prior to the explosion of the Internet. In those days, even in many corporate and networked environments, what was installed on your PC literally determined what you could do.If you needed a specific piece of business software you had to be sitting at a desk with a PC that had it installed on there with your user preferences. The IT department needed to install, maintain and upgrade the software on that PC continually.
Attempts to centralise business software and make desktops lighter in the 1990s failed because of one issue. That issue was bandwidth, because at the time corporate
networks and connectivity was not fast enough to support massive numbers of users accessing large corporate software applications concurrently. So, PCs became a necessary evil.
Today, however, those bandwidth issues are largely gone and this, coupled with the drive towards virtual infrastructure and cloud, means that many of the PCs sitting in your office are not working very hard to pay their way. In fact, I believe that over 50 percent of the approximate two billion PCs in operation globally are surplus to purpose. They are being used regularly for very basic user requirements or web access, for which they demand critical space, energy, capex and maintenance costs.
So, how do PCs fair against the four cornerstones of user IT provision? In terms of cost efficiency, PCs are relatively expensive to purchase, they have significant maintenance costs and there can even be a cost involved in their disposal. In terms of energy consumption and sustainability, PCs have a significant carbon footprint in manufacturing terms and their need for constant internal cooling of processors increases electricity usage.
From a security perspective, the frequent cases of notebook PC theft or USB key loss demonstrates the ease at which PCs loaded with business critical data can be compromised by their users. Flexibility for the individual user is probably the one cornerstone where PCs provide some benefit. In some circumstances, for example where graphics intensive applications are being used, they can be more appropriate. Equally however, due to the higher mobility of workers today and the increasing access to the web across the UK, it is less important to have your personal desktopresiding on a specific desktop or PC.
Thin solution
All things considered PCs simply don’t cut it as the most viable desktop IT option. So what other options are there? The term thin client may not seem particularly new; the reason for this is that it isn’t. Thin clients are a type of user interface that relies on servers or cloud services for processing and hosting software applications, negating the need for costly processors at the desktop.
The origins of thin clients date back to the mainframe computing days of the past, when massive central computers processed information and users touched IT to a lesser
extent. As enterprise software usage grew massively in the 1990s as a key element of most business processes, attempts were made to adopt a thin client model with core applications largely residing on servers. Bandwidth difficulties and computer performance at that stage stifled this.
Today, however, thin clients can be deployed in a fixed or even mobile environment, making them flexible for most user needs. The virtualisation of desktops and adoption of cloud services also paves the way for thin clients like never before. Increased bandwidth and computing performance means that some thin clients are more powerful than older PCs currently in use in organisations. Yet, they consume 90 percent less energy, are cheaper to buy, and eradicate 99 percent of user based security threats.
One of the traditional conceptions about thin client was that affordability was only achievable on a large scale with masses of users. But in 2010, Thinspace and Lancaster University measured the total cost of ownership (TCO) of thin clients in SME  environments. The study took into account all of the factors and costs
involved in desktop IT ownership and showed that even organisations with as few as six employees could cut their desktop IT budgets significantly by making the move. On average, SMEs of up to 100 employees could expect their desktop IT TCO to reduce by around 55 percent.
The savings increase the larger the organisation. Facilities managers are today tasked with providing optimal and technical advanced working environments, extending beyond the four walls of an office but offering maximum cost efficiency, sustainability, flexibility and security. It is easy to default to PCs as the mainstay of desktop IT provision but a closer look at corporate goals and IT drivers shows a very different landscape. Today the thin client is in, and judging by the likely shape of future IT, I think it will be more than a passing fashion.
● Lisa Layzell is CEO at Thinspace


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