Sustainability Hacks: Thin Client Server

It’s not environmentally friendly, but most of us run a small home server 24 hours a day. A small server is a useful tool to have that unfortunately wastes a lot of energy. [kekszumquadrat]’s thin client home server is actually a passable LAMP box that doesn’t draw a ton of power.

[kekszumquadrat] started looking at the SheevaPlug when beginning his quest but was a little concerned about the power supply failing. Looking for alternatives, he ran across a lot of cheap thin clients on eBay. The price was right and everything runs Linux, so a few days later he had an HP t5710 thin client on his doorstep.

This little computer came a copy of an embedded version of XP on a flash drive connected to the IDE port. Ditching that “operating system”, [kekszumquadrat] connected a USB hard drive and installed Arch Linux. After a few updates and package installations, he had a useful machine connected to the Internet.

Compared to the 7 Watts the SheevaPlug draws, the 15 W thin client is an energy hog. Compared to our improvised servers, [kekszumquadrat] is doing a remarkable job. Recycling old hardware never hurt anyone, either.

44 thoughts on “Sustainability Hacks: Thin Client Server

  1. Great but too much hassle for an already made and easy on the energy solution: Cheap-o mini-itx boards with one core (or even the dual core) Intel Atom…. 12/15w average and way more processing power (put 2gb on that thing and you got yourself a nice little box for webserver, proxying you out of draconian internet access and whatnot)

  2. I am a fan of the supermicro atom servers available from newegg and the like. They are dual nic machines that are great for linux-based routers, pbx systems and even full web and db servers. I have an intel-atom based server here for my business that runs the LAMP stack and has 1TB of storage and it draws a very small footprint, energy and physical size wise, compared to a larger server. I’m also about to install 10 of the supermicros into a colo facility for a client and remove 5 full-size servers, since The supermicros are very shallow and I can mount them on both the front and back of the racks without problems. They will have more processing power and memory with a 50% reduction in power per core.

  3. Last year I got a first generation Asus EEE Box, swapped the HD for an SSD and upgraded the memory to 2GB. It uses 95% of the time…

    It did cost some money, but the money I save on my energy bill (it replaced a dual Xeon server with a 4 disk RAID array) will make up for that in a year (€.22/kWh..).

    It ‘feels’ faster than the old beast too.

  4. I have a repurposed acer aspire one with a broken screen as my server. Atom processor, 1.5gb ram and a crappy 8gb ssd = ~7W idle.

    It’s also completely silent unless under load and the cpu temp hits 65C

  5. I use an HP t5145 as a pfSense router at home. It only has one ethernet port, but it works fine using vlans. PfSense is booting from a USB stick that is plugged into the “hidden” usb port that a lot of these thin clients have.

    I’m also a fan of the serpermicro Atom servers. I recently ordered one to serve as the router and DHCP server for the school I work in.

    1. Hi Ken, i recently got my hands on one HP t5145 and t5700. T5700 is running great under Lubuntu 13.04 and windows XP. However i have found out that the t5145 is not able to boot up any windows or linux distro from te internal ide drive. Did you find any way around it, or am i just out of luck with this client.

  6. Those thin clients(and their vast number of slightly-differently-model-numbered different shipping OS/RAM/Flash siblings) are a bit thirsty compared to ARM widgetry; but they are definitely the easy way out…

    If you ignore the optimists selling them at enterprisey list prices, they are dirt cheap used, and are absolutely standard x86 boxes with BIOSes that will boot from internal flash(which shows up as an IDE device, no JFFS or such needed), USB, or PXE. Not terribly punchy; but fast enough that no special tricks are needed to get them running what you want. They are also fanless, come with a reasonable number of USB ports, and are pleasingly sturdy in construction(the plastic is crap; but there is ~1mm steel underneath).

  7. I have a Neoware CA2 with an old Toshiba laptop drive hooked up with a 2.5″ IDE cable I found off ebay. There isn’t really a good spot to attach the hard drive, so I just have it laying there. It works great though!

  8. you know after all the pissing contests in the comments, I’m still hearing the electric hum of power consumption. one could easily hook up a GSM modem or a power tap to an active phone line so you can turn off and on your file server from anywhere in the world. Obviously the power tap would be a better choice for less power consumption as it’s powered by the phone line itself. But if you can’t have an active phone line then the GSM modem should be just fine. Hell you could probably run it off a solar cell and battery if you really wanted to. BTW great hack!

    1. You can build a GSM power-on switch very easily.
      Just take a old mobile phone, solder a optocoupler to the speaker, connect the optocoupler to the power switch and make sure that the mobile phone has always power. When you call the phone it “rings” and turns the PC on. Here my build with a makeshift optocoupler:
      Surly most people here have the parts already laying around.

      1. this is how first crude IEDs worked, they dont use GSM phones like that anymore after few blew up too early due to someone else calling while operator was still near it :)
        You can still do selective remote power on like that, just setup silent default ringtone + loud ring for the number you want it to activate on.

  9. Sorry for sounding like the dumb one here but ive looked everywhere.

    Im thinking of buying a few of these to place around the house to use with my squeezebox server. Then install linux and softsqueeze onto these. A USB soundcard and you got yourself a £20 squeezebox.

    Is there any reason it wont work? Ive seen some of these go for like £10 on ebay….

    1. Assuming you are talking about the HP T5XXXs, using them as squeezebox clients should be dead simple: These are “thin clients” in the sense that they were shipped with comparatively minimal RAM and storage, and equipped with software designed for the purpose; but they are 100% normal client PCs. x86, BIOS with the usual features, VGA, USB, Audio(albeit likely to be of ‘business’ quality, not the good stuff), etc.

      If you get one of the really low end models(say a T5510 that shipped with WinCE and only 32 MB of internal storage), getting your Linux install on the internal card might require a bit of cutting; but they will happily boot from your now-dirt-cheap 4GB flash drive if you don’t feel like bothering…

      Just be careful, though: there are many flavors of thin client on ebay, and some models are much, much more ’embedded’ than the HP T5XXXs… If you get, say, a WinCE device running on an obsolete ARM(or SuperH, for the real fun) board, with a custom bootloader predating uBoot, for which a Linux BSP never existed, from an OEM now out of business and largely impossible to dig up info about, you might Have Trouble.

      If you go for one of the weirdos, make sure you can dig up documentation from somebody who has already done the legwork(or be sure that you are willing to do the legwork yourself…); but if you get one of these things, it is pretty much 100% identical to using a PC with a small HDD and not too much RAM.

  10. 7 watts for a SheevaPlug? Maybe with a USB hard drive plugged into it. The server itself draws like 3-4 watts at full load. I’ve had mine for almost 2 years now, going on almost 9 months of uptime on it right now. The power supply in the unit does fail, but a 5v 2amp power supply from a USB hub will take over where it left off in a few minutes.
    My SheevaPlug runs my webserver, which while not the busiest site ever, the log file is always moving. It’s my firewall/router. it’s got a 2tb USB drive plugged into it and functions as my home file server/media server for the XBMC AppleTV’s in all the bedrooms. It also runs my bittorrent client.
    As for the people suggesting MiniITX Atom machines.. I have one, it’s an Intel reference board with the GMA950 chipset, dual core Atom 1.6GHz (n330?). Anyways, the power usage sits around 50watts all the time. Load doesn’t really change anything, since it’s like a 2 watt CPU.. The rest of the supporting components are highly power hungry though. Definitely not even in the ballpark for comparing to the SheevaPlug.

  11. It’s nice, but I can’t help but think that a hacked router would use even less power.

    Also if you just want a web server, proxy or just a box running linux then it would probably be cheaper, easier and more efficient (because it’s shared) to get VPS which you can get for less than $2

    1. I’m with you! So many router hacks these days and they are perfectly capable little machines. Why did he even bother with a thin client which is just another power eating cog? Glad he got his not-optimum fix. It seems like he could have just replaced the faulty regulator on the Sheevaplug and been done with it. sigh.

    2. Networking hardware usually doesn’t come close to the performance that a simple desktop can provide using the proper nic’s and OS. Unless you go into the big iron stuff and that is all extremely loud, power hungry, often proprietary and expensive.

      Also developing on a VPS also comes with its problems. For one it really skews perspectives on communication time resulting is slow networking paradigms.

  12. Don’t expect thin clients to handle a lot of heavy duty fileserving but they are far more energy efficient than anything else for the money.

    They are about as powerful as you could expect for something that is meant to act as a diskless workstation, running X or citrix..

    They don’t handle video well, but they do fine with audio. they make good home PBXs and the like.

    And they run on 12v.

  13. I’ve also set up a home server – an Atom D525. Uses more power than a thin client (15-20W), but it’s still small, quiet and houses 2 hard drives, functioning as a NAS and backup server among other things. Probably has more processing power as well. I guess it all depends on what you want the server to be capable of.

  14. The Raspberry Pi, NSLU2, and any number of other solutions could do the job as well an ITX board. Thing is this does have a really nice selections of ports for hacking and even audio out. This is a very hackable little box. I wouldn’t be so quick to write it off.

  15. I understand that mini-ITX with a D510 Atom isn’t quite as power efficient as some tiny embedded ARM system, but it’s way more power efficient than the AMD 3200+ I used to have running all the time.

    Plus, I am just completely unwilling to give up the ease of use of running an x86 system with a standard chipset and so on. Use a standard Linux distribution, with easy security updates. If you have to cross-compile, build a FLASH image, and use TFTP every time you want to make a change, then the power savings probably don’t equal time lost if your time is at all valuable.

  16. One thing about flash that sux.. it has limited writes, so if you have one of these systems, typically you develop and build on another box and then upload your changes, only. Otherwise you will hose your flash very quickly. You also should use ext2, not et3, set noatime and you should turn any unnecessary logging off. Or set up a separate machine elsewhere and log to it.

  17. My next hack might be to take my server off the grid.

    * Solar panel (maybe 10W)
    * Gel Cell battery
    * Tiny ARM board,
    * a good low power HDD mode

    Might be able to get average power usage to around 1W, if the drive sleeps 80% of the time.

  18. The 5700 series have a single PCI slot, although it requires an adaptor to lie flat. HP sells what’s called an expansion chassis.. some people use it to add an IDE hard drive or CDROM.. making it into a small desktop..

    There are also small PCI cards that can do SATA, Firewire..second Ethernet port, VGA or DVI video, etc. Not all of them work.

    You can also add a second Ethernet port with a USB/Ethernet adaptor but you will take a speed hit.

    They have an internal sound card but I have never used mine. I suspect that USB audio would be the way to go there.

  19. I have a Neoware thin client with a via 800mhz x86 chip. For a medium I connected a compact flash card to the ide port. No moving parts, well under 13 watts and very quiet. I run Debian on it also for lampp purposes.

  20. I use an ancient Dell laptop (Pentium-M 1.7Ghz) with a broken screen that I had laying around and run CentOS on it. With the drive sleeping, it draws around 13 watts, and has a built-in DVD drive and 2+ hour UPS to boot!

  21. Mmm I too have recently switched to a thin client. One thing to be aware of is not using an older one with a via processor that’s not capable of CMOV – caught me out and left me having to either run knoppix (or one or two other random distros) or compile from scratch for i386 as it seems most i386 arch distros are actually i586+

  22. I use a modified GuruPlug (removed power supply, added a small and silent fan and used an external power supply). I have also attached it an external 500 GB 2,5″ HDD.

    The entire setup draws around 5 Watt and is pretty silent.

    Although Guruplug are shit if you do not mod them, I’m pretty pleased with the result.

    I think I could reach even lower power consumption using a BeagleBoard instead of a GuruPlug…

    1. I also changed the PSU like you did when my sheevaplug died. I’m happy ever since. The old PSU lived through one year, since then it’s an external more efficient one. Much better now, consumes about 5W average with 2.5″ external HDD attached.

      I am also looking at the panda board since the last few weeks to replace my sheeva plug. Not because I don’t like it any more! The panda board has much more interfaces to play with.

  23. i use ‘that os’ for a 24/7 server.


    that os running on a very underused 8gb cf card fs
    nlited that os to reduce ram demands, especially cut much gui bs
    excellent cpu and ram utilisation
    headless, vnc when i need to get in for more laborious tweaks

  24. I took a different route.

    I bought a PVR/media player box (Emprex ME1) to play films, then I went about making that act as a small server for my needs, since it’s always on anyway, now having a home server comes at zero extra cost (or close to it -there is a slightly higher power draw due to increased disk activity) since my home server is basically my VCR.

    yes, it is still another box that is permanently on, but since it’s permanently on anyway I don’t see the problem.

    and this means that I’m able to have a home web server running so that I can get access to files upload/download as I need.
    and I can also stream music and videos to other devices, for example watching cable TV on my phone in bed over wifi.

  25. Huuu
    I did exactly the same a year or so ago.

    Might be worse to add:
    * the HP thinclients come with Wifi optional. I got one without, however, you can solder the socket to the already prepared rear side of the mainboard and plug-in a wifi card… the original wifi card is hostap compatible and hence you can get wifi routing functionality
    * there is an optional possibility to add a socket for a CF card too (I did not use it)
    * there is a USB port inside the case which allows you to add more storage easily without frighten that someone pulls it.
    * the used flash drive seems to be full IDE compatible (as written above). Hence it might be possible to add a real HDD/SSD. However space rather is limited.
    * If I remember correctly they come with an external 12V power supply… hence, perfect for car PCs too.
    * this thin clients are often used by big companies with leasing contracts… check your local used PC shop and you might be lucky to get them in dozen dirt cheap.

    I added a USB-Ethernet Adapter to have two NICs for real routing. This box replaced media PC, wifi access point, NAS, router and still has many more possibilities to go. Thus, sum up all the individual devices it replaced, 14W seems not to bad.

  26. I have hp thin client t5540 but I don’t really know to configure my server to be a controller of this client s I will be grateful if somebody can give me an idea how to configure it please…. guide me plz… I have several ENGR. they seem not to know anything about it.

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