Thin-client hardware devices are gaining processing power, codec smarts and management tools that combine with speed boosters from virtual desktop platforms and are mounting a serious challenge to the PC refresh treadmill. Even more extreme slimming called a "zero client" is stripping out any local operating system, thus reducing the attack surface, power consumption and configuration complexity associated with traditional "thick" PC desktop systems.
IT managers should consider whether the no-brainer desktop PC deployment model of the last 15 years still makes sense in a world of near ubiquitous high-speed corporate networks, widespread home Internet access and cloud-based applications.
Wyse, HP and Dell, along with a host of smaller players including Pano Logic, persist in making desktop thin- and zero-client devices that are gaining acceptance in regulated industries such as health care and financial institutions, and education, where tamper-resistance and rapid endpoint configuration features are key. And these devices and the underlying virtual desktop platforms from Citrix, VMware and Microsoft are beginning to rival traditional thick desktop systems in terms of technical capabilities and operational costs.
According to Gartner, this year the enterprise install base reached the crossover point between Windows and OS-neutral applications. The trend is for more applications to be OS neutral, thus undercutting the need for full Windows-based PC deployment. At the same time, thin and zero client devices are adding on protocol support, primarily to enable graphics and audio applications so that the thin client user experience matches the performance seen on a dedicated user system.
Making a decision between thin client hardware systems should be based on a thorough understanding of user-application requirements, the capabilities of the hosted virtual desktop platform and a strategic plan to leverage the centralized management features of the virtual desktop environment.
Regardless of where the user application executes, most business applications need to display information and receive human input. The traditional desktop PC, composed of a system with a CPU, memory, graphics card, display, keyboard, mouse and speakers was necessary when applications executed locally. While smartphones and tablets are good at displaying data, most task and knowledge workers need one or more full-size screens and a tactile, fully realized keyboard to sustain day-long productivity. Enter the thin client, for what seems like its third "first date" with IT.
What distinguishes this round of thin clients from Windows Terminal Services devices of previous years is interoperability, management and speed.
The bulk of virtual desktop platforms run on either Citrix, VMware or Microsoft platforms. Each of these vendors has a unique performance-enhancing protocol that must be supported in the thin client device in order to achieve PC-like responsiveness. Citrix has HDX. VMware has PCoIP and throws in Teradichi hardware support as well. Microsoft RDP has RemoteFX. Thus, depending on which of these platforms your organization uses, your choice of thin-client device is immediately shrunk. Or at least that used to be the case.
Nearly every thin- or zero-client device I've seen in eWEEK Labs has either a model specifically for each of the platforms or supports all of them in the same device. For example, Wyse makes two zero-client devices, the Wyse P20 for VMware View and the Wyse Zenith Pro for Citrix HDX. The hardware devices come ready-made to slip into either VMware's or Citrix's virtual desktop environments while using Wyse's own TCX protocol to shift as much application processing to the client and away from the server to improve performance.
In comparison, the Pano System 4 uses a chrome-plated device that measures just 3.5 inches wide by 3.5 inches deep by 2 inches tall and sips about 4 watts of power and out-of-the-box integrates with VMware View, Microsoft Hyper-V and Citrix XenDesktop environments to connect desktop virtual machines (VMs) created using these virtualization platforms with users who are logging on via a Pano device.
Connecting users to applications on a traditional thick client raises a number of concerns, especially for IT operations in regulated industries. Theft, accidental loss and inappropriate disclosure clash with applications that require administrative rights, convenience and human error. Thin clients combined with hosted desktop VMs significantly reduce these concerns.
IT managers must take into account these sometimes-hard-to-measure benefits when putting together a strategic desktop plan. For example, hosted desktop virtual machines running on thin-client devices can easily prevent the use of a USB storage device. In fact, for many years, one of the main challenges of thin clients has been getting them to recognize and work with legitimate peripheral devices. Similarly, because thin and zero clients store little or no data locally, accidental loss related to user hardware is nearly impossible.
Today, the two biggest audiences for thin-client products are health care and education. Nearly every thin-client maker has a health-care-related use case that enables medical staff to access patient data on a desktop that follows them throughout the day.
The "fattest" thin clients--those running embedded Windows 7, for example--still need to be patched, and vendors also recommend running antivirus locally. For the most part, this type of "thin client" is basically a life-support system for aging applications that can't transition to modern operating systems.
However, according to a Gartner report published earlier this year, 2011 marked the crossover point for enterprise applications. According to the report, half of all installed enterprise applications were written for Windows and half were OS neutral. Importantly, the trend showed a steady downward slope for Windows-native applications. If applications become less dependent on a particular underlying operating system on user hardware, "thinner" thin clients and especially zero-client hardware devices would become much more attractive to IT.