Thin client PC systems can have a dramatic impact on a company’s bottom line, according to Shlomy Nidam, CEO of Israel’s Chip PC. The systems are computers with no hard drive, which instead connect to an application server that hosts software used in an organization. “Many of our customers are able to lower the cost of maintaining their computer systems, because all administration can be done from a central location, instead of piecemeal within an organization. And unlike some of the other thin client systems out there, we can also help companies cut their energy use significantly,” Nidam said.
A thin client system consists of nothing more than a monitor, a keyboard, and a small box with a flash drive and connections for network cables. The flash drive contains the device’s operating system, with all applications used via a network on a local or remote server. Most of Chip PC’s models are based on Linux operating systems. As cloud computing becomes more popular, thin client computing has grown. Dell, HP and other large computer makers are increasing their presence in the thin client market.
Wal-Mart, one of Chip PC’s customers, provides a good picture of thin client systems’ advantages, said Nidam. “Before working with us, Wal-Mart had a huge IT department, with each branch or region the responsibility of a team of tech managers. Over 1,000 people maintained the company’s office computers used for inventory counts, correspondence, etc. Now they have an IT maintenance department of just two people, who manage the systems for all 9,000 Wal-Mart branches in the US from one place.”
The move saved Wal-Mart a fortune and made operations more efficient and secure. There is one drawback, Nidam said sheepishly. “They told me I contributed to unemployment in the US. We’ve put a lot of systems administrators and PC technicians back on the job market.”
Wal-Mart, like so many companies in today’s hyper-competitive marketplace, must cut costs wherever and however they can. This is the rationale for the move to cloud computing, where applications are hosted on a central server and “distributed” to users around a network, or over the Internet.
Google Docs and Gmail are good examples of this movement, said Nidam. Many companies no longer use applications such as Microsoft Outlook and Office, and instead use Google’s online mail and office applications for their daily business needs. By doing so, they save on licensing and storage. A Google license is a lot cheaper than a Microsoft license, and companies only pay for the storage space they actually use. Thin client computing, offloading essentially everything except the operating system to the cloud, is just the next logical step, said Nidam.
While Dell and HP are the natural choices for enterprise customers, Chip PC has some advantages over the giants, said Nidam. “We specialize in low-power systems. Our devices use 99 percent less power than a traditional PC, making them environmentally sensible, as well as money-saving. That’s where we’ve made our mark. We’ve engineered our devices to work with a minimal power draw, between 3 and 6 watts.” That is little more than the 3.32 watts needed to supply power to an iPad, as compared to the 20-60 watts needed to run a typical PC. Those savings, Nidam added, are just gravy to the savings in administration, with one person able to remotely control hundreds or thousands of systems from a single console, instead of the staff usually needed to maintain an IT operation.
Critics concede Nidam’s point on administration, but add that, with PC prices collapsing as they have, the price difference between whole units and thin clients is not substantial, and it might be a good idea to have a local, desktop backup of work saved on a server, just in case something goes wrong with the network. The Achilles’ heel of thin clients, say the critics, is that any backup they will need to get to will also be on a network. If the administrator can’t connect to the local machines, business grinds to a halt.
Nidam does not dispute these problems, which is why he emphasizes the savings in electricity. “The same argument could be made for cloud computing as well, but fears that the network will fall have not stopped the rush of enterprise to the cloud,” said Nidam. “There’s enough redundancy in connections and storage to ensure that business will continue while the network is revived, if a problem comes up.” PC makers can’t compromise on their units’ power needs as he can on his thin clients. “We’ve found this to be very appealing on many levels — economic, social and environmental,” said Nidam. “Our clients like the idea of doing good for the environment, while doing good for themselves.”