Terminal Computing – Mainframe 3.0

The pendulum finally swings back – we are finally at the tail end of the PC era. Whilst there were many good things about Personal Computers, the idiom has reached the end of the road at least as far as corporate computing is concerned. What makes Personal Computers great for a single end-user also makes it a nightmare for the IT support team in companies of all sizes and across all industries.

The chief difference between a mainframe and a PC is something called ‘virtualization’. For decades, mainframes have offered the ability to have one machine do the job of multiple computers. Mainframes are more efficient and sport utilization rates of more than 80%. PC-based servers, on the other hand, generally have utilization rates between 5 and 15%.  In today’s green office, that’s just plain unacceptable.  The sprawl of desktops and servers have resulted in most offices running computers that draw as much as 250W per employee, with the computers doing close to nothing most of the time.

What Lightspeed has done in this area is to virtualise not only typical server loads like transactional databases and mailservers, but the actual end user desktops.  These virtual desktops then run on stripped down diskless workstations that run on as little as 7 Watts, and cost as little as US$50 apiece, but deliver the performance of a mid-range PC – more than sufficient to have your deskbound office staff working at top speed whilst leaving you head room to grow your business without the concomitant cost of provisioning a new PC for each new employee (or even worse, a new laptop).

So how much does a new employee cost – in terms of computing dollars?  Well, let’s say we put aside US$100 for a terminal, maybe US$100 for a nice new LCD monitor, keyboard and mouse.  Software costs a grand total of $0 unless you insist on running Microsoft and other Windows applications. You do get Internet Explorer for free (one download away) though. How about the server, you say?  Just allocating a paltry 128MB per additional user will set you back oh … US$2.  Yes, you read that right.

So, you’ll be asking – what do I give up?  Well, here’s a list:

  1. As an IT manager, you’ll probably be more familiar with terminology like “image management” – which is a fancy way of saying that you want to make each new PC a clone of all the others you already have in terms of operating environment – well in this virtualized desktop, you say goodbye to that altogether.
  2. You’ll also give up the joy of walking to every workstation to upgrade, say the user’s copy of Firefox.  No more hanging around the HR department to chat up the girls since the desktops no longer crash either.  Centrally managed desktops done right, not just via a byzantine patchwork of add ons to compensate for a desktop OS never designed quite right.
  3. As an end-user, if you don’t insist on running Windows applications in this virtual desktop, you’ll lose the ability to get infected. Yes, that’s right no more viruses, worms and spambots – and you won’t need to renew your favorite anti-virus license every year.
  4. You give up that heater on your desk – a 250Watt power supply running at 80% efficiency means that you’re burning a good 50W – about as much heat as a standard light bulb – to dissipate heat into your immediate environment.  Great if you live in the Antartic, not so good if you live 1 degree north of the Equator.
  5. You give up a fat power bill — both in terms of powering the PCs and compensating for the heat they generate. At current power prices, you can put that money towards buying something nice – like flowers for your office once in a while.
  6. You give up noise – not having an HDD running amok inside a box that amplifies the noise, plus running with reduced need for cooling fans means a quieter work environment. You’ll have to turn on the radio to compensate for the sudden silence, and if you’re not looking at the screen, you might not even know the computer is on.

Plus for a paltry US$20 per user per month (10 user minimum), Lightspeed guarantees that the workstation will function normally.  No guarantees you’ll like the applications, but at least they won’t crash on you and lose your data.  How many users can you put on one server?  Depends what hardware you use.  Using IBM’s range of computers as a guide – ranging from x Series that run Intel x86 (and x86_64) processors, we get between 20 – 200 users per server depending on configuration), i Series (between 100 to 2000 users) and of course the inimitable z Series – anywhere between 1,500 to 300,000 users.