Do we all need PCs?

I spent Tuesday at the Esteem ‘Higher Education Strategy Forum’ in Edinburgh.

One the agenda were some really interesting topics such as Sustainable Computing and Becoming an Eco-University. One of the presentations that really fired my imagination was a presentation from SUN Microsystems about their Sun Ray 2 Desktop devices. The Sun Ray is basically a dumb terminal, it doesn’t have a hard drive or cpu. All the computing work is done by a back end server. There is actually no software installed onto the Sun Ray 2 device.
The user inserts a card into the device which connects the Sun Ray 2 to the back end server. The user is the presented with their desktop. One of the impressive things about the Sun Rays is that if a user needs to swap desks, they simply pull out the card (without logging off or shutting down any applications) and insert this into another Sun Ray. When the card is inserted into the second Sun Ray they are presented with the same applications they were using on the previous Sun Ray.

The Sun Ray never needs upgrading, doesn’t have any parts that would need replacing and because it doesn’t have any software installed it means that it can be deployed quickly. The salesman I was talking to claims a Sun Ray can be out of the box and installed in under a minute. The power used by the Sun Ray is only 4watts, from a Green Computing and Energy saving point of view this is superb.

This brings me to my point, Do we need PCs ? Do we all really use our dual processor, quad cores and 80GB hard drives? The answer is almost certainly NO. The PCs that we are currently deploying to desktops are more powerful than some of the servers currently in use on the network. We roll out new PCs to keep up with new releases of Windows and we increase the memory in the PCs to deal with the more resource hungry applications. Sun Rays would put an end to this, they would never need upgrading, there is very little that can fail and they are future proof as all the work is done by the back end server. IT Services are planning a visit to the SUN Offices later on this month, and there is an excellent chance that you might even see some of these Sun Ray devices on a desktop near you soon.

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10 Responses to Do we all need PCs?

  1. Mike Nolan says:

    What are the server requirements for this kind of setup, say for 100 thin clients? Do you believe that the IT industry is ready to deliver this technology? Perhaps more importantly, are users willing to accept it? In the 10 years since Oracle’s failed attempt to get the Network Computer platform off the ground most people have become used to PCs – they have them at home, everyone has one on their desk, and I wonder if there will be some resistance to change.

    That’s not to say it can’t work, or that it’s not important that we look at this. The environmental impact of hundreds of overpowered machines running eight (or 24!) hours a day is significant and I’m sure there are cost savings to be made.

  2. Stuart Gould says:

    Sun Ray looks really interesting. We had looked into doing something similar using terminal server and older equipment a while back but that specific technology didn’t do what we wanted at the time. This looks quite promising and I love the idea of the smart cards, not just for staff but possibly students. Imagine a classroom where the students break for lunch, they all take their cards away and eat. Their session later is in a totally different classroom but thanks to the cards their sessions are still live and they start exactly where they left off despite being in another building.
    Terminals are very popular in a lot of places, I’ve worked with some in Local goverment using Wyse Terminals to connect to a Citrix system and they were using this system for many hundreds of users across the council. They did find it was limited when running network intensive applications such as document image processing but for day to day activity it was a great success.
    In terms of the back end I noticed on the Sun Ray system specs that it states 40mb of RAM per active client, I can only assume then that we would be looking at some very powerful boxes if we were connecting a large number of users.

  3. It seems that this type of technology has been around for some time, the Sun Rays have been around for a good few years now. The Sun Rays that were are looking at are the second incarnation of these devices. One of the sizing documents I’ve read suggests that 40 users at 50% activity will require 330 MHz of CPU power, 864 Mbyte of memory and 1636 Mbyte of swap space. This will need investigating as Sales documentation usually presents a perfect world scenario. Sizing a server in the real world might be slightly different.

    SUN seem to be suggesting using the new cool threads servers is the best way forward. The great thing about the cool threads servers is that have improved power efficiency. The base model has a 6 or 8 core, 1.0 GHz UltraSPARC T1 processor, and performance is supposed to amazing. The trick is going to be sizing the servers correclty in the first place, but without going over the top or we will lose the benefit of adopting this type of technology in the first place.

    The biggest challenge is going to be convincing users that they don’t need a huge PC on their desk. It seems that even though electronics are getting smaller (take mobile phones for instance), PCs have stayed much the same size for the past few years.
    Users like it that way, PCs are seen as status symbols in some departments. Most users don’t know what a gigabit of memory is, but they know that two gigabits is better than one. Some users will still need PCs, but there is a large percentage of EH staff that only ever use IE, Groupwise and Microsoft Office. Some investigation is needed and a pilot will need to be done, but the savings to EH from this kind of technology could be quite significant. This saving is not only in electricity and initial capital outlay, but also the cost savings of installing, patching and upgrading traditional desktop PCs. We are planning a visit to the Sun offices at the end of the month, so I’ll feed back anything interesting.

  4. Your right Stuart, there is also the idea of around 40mb per active client, this means that based on those figures we’ll get roughly 25 active users per GB of memory. The rough figures come out as

    4GB = 100 active users
    8GB = 200 active users
    16GB = 400 active Users
    32GB = 800 activeUsers

    Processing power is also a requirement that needs to be looked at. It’s worth noting that SUN counts an active user as one that is actually doing something and not one that is just logged in.

    This isn’t going to be practical for everyone, but for office admin and regular users this is an ideal product. Tech. Services will be coming along to the SUN offices too, so we can all have a look and see if this product will do what we want.

  5. Tim says:

    I used the old Sun Rays as a student at Keele Uni and they were a pleasure to use. They were only in one of the computing labs and had a SunOS/Solaris backend, running CDE and eventually Gnome2.

    You can run them with Windows 2003 server or whatever though, can you? Sounds great, and I can’t see users complaining about not having a big machine on their desks!

    I could ask someone at Keele what spec of machine they have and how it performs under load etc. It likely gets a bit of a thrashing in the computing dept!

  6. Hi Tim,

    I don’t think that the Sun Rays would be suitable for all users. There are certainly a large amount of staff users that only ever use msoffice, groupwise and perhaps the finance/hr systems. Currently we are deploying 2GB dual core 80GB computers to these users which is just overkill. The Sunrays would be ideal for this type of low end users. There is a group of us going to see the Sun Bods in Sale at the end of the month, if all goes to plan we could be seeing these Sun rays depolyed for staff in the new building by the lake. We are also thinking of rolling these Sun rays out into touchdown areas in the new building. In terms of performance Sun have already suggested that we look at the blisteringly fast cool threads range of servers. having said that we won’t make any dicisions until we visit Sun.

    It’s good to know that someone else has heard of the Sun rays, I must admit the first time I’ve ever seen one was as a conference a few weeks ago.

  7. Tim says:

    Yes, that sounds like overkill for what is probably a large majority of people. – And, as you point out, not just a waste of resources but also pointless energy consumption. I like the ‘green’ angle, and it’d be great for you guys that have to administrate this stuff to have a lot of the staff IT resources all completely centralised!

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