County thins energy bills

Contra Costa County, Calif., could save more than $224,000 a year in electricity costs by using thin appliances rather than personal computers.

The thin-client appliances tap central servers running Microsoft Corp. Windows applications and display the applications on desktop monitors. They use energy-efficient processors and have no internal moving parts such as fans or disk drives, enabling the devices to use only seven to 10 watts of electricity per hour. Personal computers can use as much as 200 watts per hour.

Wyse Technology Inc. estimates that the thin-client appliances save the county an average of 90 watts per hour per appliance — which is good news given the the local energy crunch.

A thin client looks more or less like any other desktop computer. It includes a keyboard and a monitor, but there is no CPU.

Instead, the client connects to a server to process applications, access files, print and perform other services, but it costs less because fewer technical staff members can now help more users.

Users need only plug in and log on as they would with a normal computer because user information is stored on the server, allowing users to customize their desktops as they would on any other PC.

Software upgrades and backups are handled by one system administrator and deployed to all thin-client desktops automatically.

Steve Steinbrecher, the county's chief information officer, said the energy savings from the thin clients is an added bonus from a product that county officials wanted to buy anyway.

"In 1996, we were looking around during the design phase of what was to become our county [enterprise resource planning] system," Steinbrecher said, "and I basically said I didn't want people screwing around at their desktops — downloading things they shouldn't, saving files onto their hard drives that didn't need to be there."

Maintenance costs have dropped 38 percent in four years because there are fewer hard drives.

Steinbrecher said the county (www.co.contra-costa.ca.us) was the first in California to embrace thin-client technology on a broad scale, having set up thin-client applications for more than 1,500 employees. Steinbrecher plans to introduce more thin-appliance products to replace existing PCs as they break.

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