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Will thin clients rebound with higher power prices?

Corporate buyers are looking more seriously at the Sun Ray because their power prices are climbing. It's about time.

MENLO PARK, Calif.--The global rise in power consumption isn't bad for all species, it turns out.

Sun Microsystems is seeing increased customer interest in its Sun Ray, a thin desktop client, as electricity prices climb, said Subodh Bapat, vice president and chief engineer in the Eco Responsibility office at Sun. Bapat's comments came in a presentation during Sun's global media day taking place Wednesday.

Thin clients like the Sun Ray consume far less electricity than conventional desktops, he said. A Sun Ray on a desktop might consume 4 to 8 watts of power. That's because most of the heavy computation is performed by a server. (An individual server, meanwhile, can handle 10 to 50 thin clients, depending on the application they are being used for.) By contrast, a desktop might consume 100 to 150 watts of power, he claimed.

PC makers might argue with the scope of the difference, but PCs do have more powerful processors as well as hard drives, something thin clients don't have. Thus, PCs invariably are going to consume a substantially larger amount of power. New, more stringent Energy Star specs say that desktops need to consume 50 watts or less in idle mode to qualify for Energy Star certification.

The price of electricity, meanwhile has been steadily rising 13 to 14 percent per year during the decade, Bapat said. In 2000, electricity cost 2 to 3 cents a kilowatt-hour in 2000. Now it goes for 11 cents or more a kilowatt-hour in many locations, and in places like Japan, power costs far more. In the past, this was overlooked.

"In the past, people really haven't factored in power in TCO (total cost of ownership) calculations," he said.

Thin clients also last longer. "You only have to replace it every 80 years. It is more eco-friendly than a PC," he said. "It doesn't get obsolete as fast." PCs get replaced on average in 4 to 5 years. Mandatory fees for electronic recycling--which many states are contemplating--could thus add some luster to thin clients.

Sun, among other companies, has been touting thin clients as alternatives to PCs for over a decade. First, thin client backers touted the machines as cheaper, easier-to-manage systems--then later, as a way to undermine Microsoft. (Attention, old timers: remember the Javastation?) PCs, however, continued to come down in price, eroding the appeal of alternatives. Some early thin clients also didn't provide fantastic performance. While many companies have adopted thin clients for retail stores or repair shops, the PC still rules in most offices and homes. Chances are you're reading this on a PC.

Like other computer makers, Sun also has a host of energy-efficiency initiatives under way: processors that consume less power than predecessors or competitors, data center design services, or virtualization to make individual servers do more work per watt, etc.

One interesting factoid: data center owners such as Google are building data centers in places where power is cheap. A decade ago, the main consideration was where broadband would be cheapest, he said. Current data centers, he added, can take up 500,000 square feet of floor space and require 40 to 50 megawatts of power.