Blade PC technology offers businesses a way to reduce costs and carbon emissions as well as enhance data security. Andrew Hayden and Julian Cranwell explain

Fifteen per cent of the UK’s total energy consumption goes on office equipment such as photocopiers, printers, desktop PCs and monitors, and the figure could rise to 30% by 2020 according to the Carbon Trust. If this were not bad enough, inefficient desktop PCs cost the top 200 UK businesses more than £61 million each year, according to a survey by Computer Centre and Fujitsu Siemens. One way to improve these statistics is through introduction of blade PC environments, which have been used by larger organisations since 2001.

Research shows that blade PC technology can deliver big reductions in energy usage, cutting energy costs by 50%, and in carbon emissions. This could help enormously in improving the ratings required for certification as part of the EU’s Energy Performance of Buildings Directive, which comes into force this year, with the UK’s Carbon Reduction Commitment scheme to follow.

Blade workstations are rack-mounted boards that contain a full PC, including processor, memory, hard drive, graphics and operating system. They are derived from blade server technology, which has been in use for several years, and as such are a natural evolution to the workstation application.

The system allows companies to take computers off users’ desks by transferring the same functionality to the rack-mountable circuit boards, and relocate the heat-generating components to a controlled environment such as a server room or data centre.

Instead, a small device that sits on top of each computer user’s desk is either directly connected or dynamically allocated to the blade in the computer room or data centre, based on each user’s specific needs.

Key blade components

Deploying a consolidated blade solution brings many benefits. With energy performance certificates and Carbon Reduction Commitment on the horizon, effective ways of mitigating levels of harmful emissions must be explored. If time, money and energy can be saved too, and data security and staff productivity enhanced, what are we waiting for? Read on . . .

The five key benefits of blade pcs

1. Cost savings

Research shows that despite slightly higher set-up costs compared with traditional desktops, the annual savings offered by blade systems offset these in as little as 13 months.

Savings stem from reduced costs for maintenance, facilities, security, theft, damage and IT staff. Big savings come from the fall in energy consumption. For example, 1250 employees consume an average of 2.5GWh each per year, at a cost to the business of about £134,000. Blade systems can reduce that by as much as 50%. The cooling requirement is reduced too.

Removing desktops and having centralised control can cut desktop support costs by as much as 40%. Controlled access to the hardware also significantly reduces maintenance costs associated with routine wear and tear and fatal hardware damage. In addition, consolidated blade systems are often covered by extended manufacturer swap-out warranties.

The graphs (left) show the findings of an independent global research company on the average annual cost per user and the return on investment from implementing blade solutions.

2. Safer data

By removing hardware from the user’s desk and locking it away in a controlled environment, data becomes far more secure. It is protected by systems specifically designed to ensure it remains operational, in a place where security measures and access restrictions make theft and criminal damage less of a risk.

This extra security and management also helps to prevent failure and disaster. With so many businesses reliant on technology for information storage, communication and transactions, this is a business-critical issue and represents a significant advantage of blade PC environments.

3. Easier system management and maintenance

Centralised administration of blade servers means that managing and maintaining them becomes less complex and disjointed. Instead of having to apply patches, updates and security fixes from the desk, these can be executed at a central point. If server equipment needs to be replaced or repaired, no disruption is caused within the workspace.

Easier management and control of the IT environment means users can enjoy a consistent working platform with virtually no downtime.

4. Energy efficiency

Embracing advances in technology and energy efficiency improve a business’s sustainability credentials, but many IT trends increase power and heat load because they require more powerful multiple processors, dual-core microprocessors and multiple screen environments.

Blade workstations allow the energy required to power processing to be exported to a purpose-built area. This cuts the heat load of desktop computer equipment. More efficient mechanical ventilation/ cooling systems, such as CO2, can be used in the purpose-built data centre because human comfort is not a factor in there.

By adopting blade technology, both passive and active chilled beam systems become an option. Based on 400 users, savings of 74kW at a chiller coefficient of performance of 2.5 could be achieved, creating annual savings of £4500, 93,000kWh and 38 tonnes of CO2.

In the office environment, more stable thermal characteristics and reduced cooling loads lead to smaller central plant and room terminal sizes, which cuts capital and running costs and carbon emissions. Heat from processors could be considered a useful gain in winter, of course.

Reduced heat in the office can also prevent the need for additional solar shading on the outside of the building. Energy wastage is also reduced as staff cannot leave processors on overnight.

5. Easier installation and flexibility

Remote workstation solutions simplify new-build and refurbishment projects. Infrastructure requirements are fewer and the specifications for cabling are similar for most blade solutions, meaning that relocation to another office that is set up for a blade-server-based system requires less work.

The distance between desktop and blade can be up to 200m using CAT5, 150m using CAT6 and 500m using fibre. The user port supports connection over switched ethernet networks which gives unlimited distance subject to bandwidth.

The limitations

As with any technology, there are some restrictions that need to be kept in mind when considering blade PC solutions.

  • Having more than one operating system can be difficult because of limitations with supported vendor operating systems, but this is improving as more businesses turn to blade PCs.
  • Input and output devices need a high availability supporting network. Manufacturers can provide network monitoring tools to assist but an adequate core network infrastructure will be required to maximise system benefits.
  • Graphic-resource-hungry applications cannot be accommodated on early model blade systems and newer systems will still fall short of tower desktops when used for high-powered graphics.
  • Complications with software licensing can occur.
  • Structured cabling can limit distances between the blade and the end-user. This can be overcome by newer technologies available from manufacturers or by utilising fibre or IP networks.