Price and Performance

I see PCs idling everyday. The PCs around here range in age from 1 to 8 years with the average being more than five years. We welcome donated PCs 8 years old because they work well and give us little trouble except that some have uncommon parts so a dying motherboard or hard drive cannot be replaced easily. That really is not a problem because the donated machines cost us almost nothing, just freight.

Our typical user hardly gets over 30% CPU utilization except when booting. In fact, my terminal server has a hard time getting to 30% utilization even when 20 thin clients run off it. Clearly these machines meet our needs. Why then do so many feel the need to chuck 3 year old machines? Well, not as many as there used to be. Those who make a living installing PCs have been telling the PHBs that 3 years is all the life there is in a PC. How they did that when failure rates were of the order of 1% per annum is beyond me… The PHBs no longer accept such nonsense and are looking at extending the life of PCs to five or six years in many cases. A recent survey found that 69% of businesses run PCs four years or longer. Some of that was clinging to XP and some was belt-tightening due to a slowing of growth but it is reality. Because businesses found they can get away with five year old PCs, they accept the ideas that PCs do not wear out and that smaller and cheaper PCs may do. After all there is not much difference between an old PC and a new thin client except size and price.

Beside necessity, people are also seeing that smart-phones and other mobile PCs are quite useful. That means older PCs which have similar capability are also useful. The facts that XP is deprecated and “7” won’t run on old PCs means that GNU/Linux will be seen as a way to extend the life of PCs. I see that every day getting better performance from old PCs with GNU/Linux than with XP.

Some businesses are making money refurbishing old PCs. They can easily do that because the machines are available for the price of freight or even less if other businesses pay them to take old machines away. The upselling done by M$ and its “partners” has given refurbishers a couple of hundred dollars in which to play. They can clean and install GNU/Linux for less than $100 and sell the machine for a bit more than $100 and make a larger margin than an OEM selling for M$ on new machines. This happy state of affairs can last several more years until XP machines are exhausted. I doubt anyone will be convinced that a quad-core hair-dryer with 4gB RAM should be discarded in less than 5 years. When the cost of keeping that other OS becomes too much folks will use such machines as terminal servers and run GNU/Linux. “7” may well be M$’s last mass-distribution OS.

The value of old PCs increases with time as we increasingly run apps on servers. They make decent thin clients and cost very little except power. Simply by tweaking the BIOS to boot PXE, a business or other organization can extend the life of the PC several years and get new performance from a terminal server. I have been doing that for years in schools and now it is happening in business which mostly considers the bottom line. I was considering the top line only, what it cost to do IT. Any way you do it, the performance per dollar goes way up if you hang onto PCs longer than 3 years. Do the maths.

About Robert Pogson

I am a retired teacher in Canada. I taught in the subject areas where I have worked for almost forty years: maths, physics, chemistry and computers. I love hunting, fishing, picking berries and mushrooms, too.
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10 Responses to Price and Performance

  1. oldman says:

    (Oh My we are going to continue this on Christmas!)


    “I hate wasted motions and material. That is what you get with thick clients. If money and resources and your space is no matter, install a mainframe next to your desk. I prefer a thin client.”

    I certainly don’t need a mainframe at my desk – for one thing it cant execute x86 code! I do prefer to own the resources that I need for working on my music and for keeping my professional skills up to date (I will probably be consulting after my retirement, as far off as that is). the major change is that I may not be as wedded to having a desktop as I used to be. Being able to get 1Tb of portable USB 3.0 storage for $170.00US and the advent of reasonably priced laptops that support 8Gb of memory and solid state drives have gone a long way towards curing me of my desktop bias.

    As far as my family is concerned, my wife could get along with one of those tablets, but she took one look at the iPad and dismissed the form factor out of hand, and as you know arguing with ones wife is a losing proposition. She will be the proud owner of a minimal laptop (I refuse to pay for a dinky netbook!) My daughter will get a laptop that can meet her college needs – hopefully one with a solid state drive id I can afford it so that I’m not worrying about making emergency calls to rebuild her system.

    By your lights, the above is a waste of power, but frankly I don’t care, because I’m not going through the hassle of having to maintain a multiuser environment – I leave my sysadmin hat at work thank you.

    Merry Christmas

  2. There are three main reasons I like thin clients for personal use:

    1)Many of us have multiple computers and using thin clients makes providing a really powerful machine to everyone affordable.

    2)People love space. Sharing my personal space with a box of air and fans and PSU and drives really is a pain. I want to be able to lay down a book or papers or my camera on my table/desk and not have to dodge extraneous equipment. I get more freedom in my personal space by not having a large box nearby.

    3)Performance. Most homes in USA/CANADA have multiple PCs. It really enhances performance of the individual PC if the files needed are cached. That happens automatically if everything is done on one server instead of on each PC. It is just a waste of resources to have favicon.ico cached on every PC in the home and to have it downloaded from popular sites. Same goes with lots of executable and data files. A GNU/Linux terminal server can cache web-data, executables and local data so that no drive seeks are needed. If those seeks are not needed why have drives all over the place? In a school or office with many PCs this advantage is multiplied. The more people using a system the more likely a popular file is already in RAM.

    I hate wasted motions and material. That is what you get with thick clients. If money and resources and your space is no matter, install a mainframe next to your desk. I prefer a thin client.

    The quiet fans like 120mm 2K rpm run about 20dB of noise. Very few PCs that I have seen use those universally. I still see 5K rpm coolers on CPUs. They are sirens pumping out 45dB or more. You can get used to them and ignore the white noise but it reduces the signal to noise ratio to the point where it is hard to “hear” your own thoughts. My first IT job was in an environment with 85dB. My first assignment was to read the Assembler manual for a system. I could not do it. A fanless thin client is just a superior companion.

    The typical box pumps out 100W of hot air: CPU 65W (up to 145W), RAM 10W, PSU 10W, drives 10W, motherboard 20W… That is about the same heat output as a teenager. In a lab with 20 teenagers, it is a serious amount of heat, kilowatts. This is perhaps not a problem in the depths of Winter but is a pain at other times. I have worked in classrooms with sweat dripping from my nose because of this. It just is not useful to have all the extra heat of thick clients where I work. In my home I personally pay for heating/cooling and I do not want to pay extra for hardware I don’t need, energy to run it and energy to take the wasted energy away. It makes no sense to me.

  3. oldman says:

    “No one who plans to remain sane will work at their desks with hearing protection and extra air-cooling or water-cooling. It is so much more productive to use a thin client and to have the computing horsepower elsewhere.”

    I dont know where you get this from, Pog. EVery desktop I have encountered is whisper quiet. In fact the past three generations of desktops at least have been As quiet as well. The last desktop that I can recall that had anything like a noisy fan was from over 10 years ago. No modern desktop computer from a major manufacturer that I have encountered is so noisy that it becomes an issue.

    “Heavy CPU/I-O users will almost always be better off running stuff on a server or a cluster rather than a desktop PC. ”

    It seems to me that we are talking about two different things. You seem to speak as if I am part of an institution. I speak as an individual.

    Personal computing is personal computing, it may not be efficient, but then again that isn’t the point of a personal computer. A personal computer is a dedicated resource that an individual owns. Personal computers do indeed access shared resources, and for some people, a personal computer has no function other than a shared resource access point, but in the event that they have loos access to the shared resource, they still have a functioning tool.

    Need to compose a letter or document? If your net connection goes down and you have a thin client, you get work wait until you can access your applications again. If you have a personal desktop, you can continue to work until the connection comes up at which time you can send your document into the ether. You can talk of efficiency from now until the cows come home, but this fact remains.

    At any rate, I bid you and your family a Merry and peaceful Christmas and a Happy and prosperous New year to Come!
    For someone who values the freedom that FOSS and Linux gives him, I am struck how much you are a champion of moving everyone fully back into the shared resource environment that started the computer age.
    I have zero interest in “sharing” time on any system – period.

  4. Exactly. If you don’t have to run all kinds of unnecessary stuff you get better performance. Most people find 4 cylinder cars sufficiently powerful for city driving too.

    I have done a lot of installations on older machines. The beauty of GNU/Linux is that almost all of the drivers needed are already installed with the kernel. So a single image can work on almost any PC. I have a USB drive at work with two images: i386 and amd64. It works for every machine in the place. It takes about 5 minutes instead of 20 minutes or longer with the usual installation from CD or network. I boot Clonezilla from the USB drive and copy disc-images from the USB drive to the hard drive. The only faster installation I know of is copying a network bootloader to the MBR to make the machine a thin client. Thus the installation of GNU/Linux takes much less time than even trying to get that other OS to boot or to vainly hunt for malware etc.

  5. Andrius Bentkus says:

    I got a 3 year old laptop and windows xp is really slow (because of the old, small, low rpm harddisk). I got to boot like 7 minutes, before it goes into idle mode.
    With Ubuntu I get in 1-2 minutes going, from boot to xterm. The ram consumption is much lower too. Actually I don’t think I’m going to buy a new laptop anytime soon, only if my old laptop will break.

    I took my fathers 4 year old computer (single core celeron, 512mb ram), installed ubuntu and skype on it and gave it to my parents as a web browsing machine: saved 500 euro and ubuntu works so fast …

  6. Certainly there are uses for the thick client but it is far from optimal for the majority of current usage. There are many millions of folks who use nothing but a smart-phone to access the web and never use a PC. In Japan they are now the majority. In the USA 20% of mobile Internet users do not use a PC.

    Heavy CPU/I-O users will almost always be better off running stuff on a server or a cluster rather than a desktop PC. No one who plans to remain sane will work at their desks with hearing protection and extra air-cooling or water-cooling. It is so much more productive to use a thin client and to have the computing horsepower elsewhere.

    In my lab at school I have a Xeon x-series running in the corner. It makes more noise than all the other desktop machines being used as thin clients because of 5k fans and SCSI drives but it is worth it because it performs 5X faster that way. If I had a server room for which I have a key, I would move it there in an instant. Unfortunately my employer uses such a space for an office and storage…

  7. oldman says:


    “You should care, as a consumer, for the same reasons you do not leave your car idle for hours, or every light on in your home. ”

    The computer I use is sized for the tasks I want to accomplish. The power that it consumes is figured into my budget. virtualization has allowed me to trash a collection of older single purpose systems and replace them with two systems – On that runs my specialized software, and one that consolidates all of my dedicated apps into a group of virtual machines. In memory samplers have allowed me to trash a rack of even more power hungry synthesizers and mixers.

    In short, I am saving power and cooling On my terms, and those are what counts – Not yours.

    I respectfully submit Pog, that you may wish to consider the possibility that not everyone makes a limited use of computers as you do (Programming and playing games I believe you said at one time). That even those who “point click and gawk” may be using a surprising amount of horsepower to get what seems to you to be a trivial task done. You are not going to be able to sell these people your ARM based fantask machine if it lasks the horsepower to do what they take for granted. No matter how cheap you make it, it it doesnt do what they want it to, they will simply dismiss it as cheap junk, which IMHO is what it is.

  8. oldman wrote:”However in the context of a personal desktop, this is to me a non event – Why should I care about the fact that my personal desktop is idling away when its my personal desktop.

    You should care, as a consumer, for the same reasons you do not leave your car idle for hours, or every light on in your home. Doing so wastes resources for no benefit. I realize that many consumers have fallen or been pushed into bad habits. Where I work, people are in the habit of warming up their vehicles by idling instead of driving at low speed. The town is so small I am almost certain that more fuel is burned here idling than rolling. Fuel costs more than $1 a litre there. In IT the whole world was in the habit of running PCs 24×7 just because boot-times had grown so long and booting had become risky with that other OS. That other OS became more reliable but the booting-rarely habit did not change.

    Cloud computing and web-apps are a way to reduce the overhead of individual PCs. The next logical step is to reduce the resources idling on the desktop/notebook/whatever. An individual may have computing habits which do not overlap the area of conservation much at all, for instance, someone who does $1000s of business in a few minutes once a day and shuts down. Others who are constantly word-processing never stress their CPUs except perhaps during booting (waiting on storage). Many have other tasks not requiring a CPU at all.

    CPUs may have means of reducing energy consumption during idle periods such as under-clocking or reducing voltage but the material costs of a system still remain. ARM uses much less material in a CPU than Intel. That fact cascades down the production/delivery channel saving money at every transaction. More chips per wafer in the fabs, less handling and packaging and freight costs, lower power consumption all add up to lower-cost computing and with thin client/netbook computing performance does not suffer by use of ARM. Done right, performance improves mostly because of storage/caching.

  9. oldman says:

    “I see PCs idling everyday.”

    If we talking in the context of an enterprise, I can see you point. However in the context of a personal desktop, this is to me a non event – Why should I care about the fact that my personal desktop is idling away when its my personal desktop.

    Also, The fact that there are a few business who specialize in reselling old systems running some Linux desktop is interesting, but ultimately not a growth market. In my experience very few people buy used computers and even fewer buy them with Linux
    on them. Buy a recycled computer that can only run FOSS applications for $300.00 makes no sense when for as little as $100.00 more you can system that can run both FOSS and commercial applications?

    “If you use WindowsXP now you don’t have to buy a new Windows7 system. Just wipe that virus infection magnet off the drive and install one of any number of very nice Linux versions out there.”

    This assumes, of course, that you can live in a FOSS only world and can trade the “hassles” of having to protect yourself from internet predators for the hassles of running a non commercial operating system controlled by hobbyists – Its all a matter of trade-offs.

    Actually, What you did was what I do, except I paid my $100.00 and use VMWare workstation to float a Linux VM.

  10. lpbbear says:

    Last weekend my nephew called needing help with yet another virus/trojan infected Windows system. I expressed my reluctance to wasting my personal life on his Windows problems but offered to guide him through the process if he did the actual tedious loading and installing I knew would be involved. He agreed.

    After he arrived the first thing we did was back up his important data by transferring it through my network to a Linux system meant for this purpose. To do this we used a run from CD version of Linux. I explained what a total waste of time it would be to try to do this using Windows. That went routinely while we sat and chatted as I expected it would.

    So on to the actual install. I won’t go into the boring details other than to say 3 hours later WindowsXP and all drivers were finally installed.

    Next we installed Virtualbox and I explained to him that he would be wise to use a copy of Linux in Virtualbox for all future web cruising. After Virtualbox was installed we installed a copy of Linux Mint 9 KDE version.

    Total time start to finish?

    25 minutes and that includes installing Virtualbox, Linux Mint and guest additions.

    After he took a look at the installed Linux system and realized that not only was Linux installed but all extra software he might need his impression of how much more efficient Linux was compared to Windows was positively planted in his mind.

    With Windows he still had a lot more time to invest once he got home in scanning his old data, more software to install, printer to setup etc so 3 hours is just the tip of the iceberg. With Linux he was basically done.

    His system is a few years old. A Dell with 2 gbs memory and a 250 gb hard drive. Its a decent system and if he were to run just Linux on it I am sure it would run circles around Windows. Even so, the virtual copy of Linux runs quite well even using the 768 mbs of borrowed memory from Windows.

    The clowns at Microsoft would love owners of systems like this to believe their computers are obsolete. Quite to the contrary they are not. Why give Gates and Ballmer more money for new mansions? Keep it in YOUR pocket and spend it on yourself.

    If you use WindowsXP now you don’t have to buy a new Windows7 system. Just wipe that virus infection magnet off the drive and install one of any number of very nice Linux versions out there. Most of them will run perfectly on your older, supposedly obsolete, computer and will likely out perform your old WindowXP system by a long shot.

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