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Finding the right VDI client is crucial to delivering virtual desktops users will enjoy working with. HTML5 browsers, thin clients, zero clients and repurposed PCs are all viable options.

One of the biggest decisions IT administrators have to make when delivering virtual desktops is how users will access them, because it affects the user experience and ultimately the success or failure of a VDI deployment.

IT can turn to the simplicity of HTML5 clients, which are versatile and allow users to access virtual desktops from the familiar interface of a Web browser. Or admins can deliver virtual desktops to thin or zero clients, which strip away most extraneous features -- and the management hassles that come with them -- from PC hardware. They can even turn an old PC into a VDI client if they don't want to waste resources and spend money on new devices.

Ultimately, admins should focus on user experience when choosing a VDI client. If the client isn't easily accessible or can't deliver applications smoothly, then the entire VDI deployment will fall flat. Sort through the good and bad of using HTML5 browsers, thin clients, zero clients or even repurposed PCs to support VDI.

Why use HTML5 clients?

HTML5 browsers carry a lot of value in a mobile environment, because they allow users to access their virtual desktops on any device that can run an HTML5 browser. That includes corporate-provided and employee-owned smartphones, tablets, laptops and PCs. Basically any device that can run one of the popular Web browsers, including Internet Explorer, Firefox or Google Chrome can be an HTML5 client, including Internet of Things devices.

HTML5 clients are easy to work with for admins and users. There are no additional extensions or plug-ins users have to download; a user simply opens up the browser, goes to the right URL and logs in to access his virtual desktop.

Repurposing PCs can lower upfront costs, but it is ultimately pricier than regular thin clients or zero clients.

From a security perspective, HTML5 clients are a mixed bag. On the positive side, nothing is stored on users' devices, so admins don't have to worry about protecting data locally. The problem is that hackers can attack the actual HTML5 browsers, so key logging and data stream capture are real threats. And because there are so many browsers users can work with, securing them all is a challenge.

Other negatives include less-than-ideal graphics performance for users who work with video and other resource-intensive apps. That's because HTML5 clients use their own remote display protocol instead of desktop virtualization vendors' protocols such as Citrix HDX or VMware's PCoIP. To make matters worse, HTML5 clients can't provide device redirection, including with USB devices.

How do thin clients work?

Thin clients are devices stripped of all the bells and whistles of a normal PC, such as CD-ROM players, diskette drives, extension slots and other features. They use a network connection to communicate with a central server and deliver virtual desktops to users without processing much on the hardware itself, which helps improve security. They are easy to implement and include centralized management tools so admins can apply policies to multiple thin clients at the same time.

Organizations have many thin client options, including from vendors such as HP Enterprise and Dell Wyse. Any extra features do mean extra costs, however, so it is important to determine exactly what each user needs when an organization purchases thin clients. It is also critical to make sure the company has enough network bandwidth to support the remote display protocol functions properly.

What makes zero clients different?

Zero clients have even less going on under the hood than thin clients. There are not many configuration options, there's nothing stored on them and no OS to deal with. Zero clients are often cheaper than thin clients and consume fewer resources because they only run a low-power CPU. They can also provide a PC-like experience because different models come optimized for a specific VDI protocol. As a result, the user experience, including scrolling, video playback and display, is usually pretty strong.

When it comes to management, there are only a few configuration settings and each device is nearly the same. Because zero clients are essentially a blank slate, IT admins can distribute them to workers without having to preconfigure them or provide as much in-person support at their desks as they would with more complicated devices.

What about repurposing old PCs as a VDI client?

On the surface, repurposing a PC as a VDI client seems like a no-brainer because organizations don't have to pay for new hardware. In addition, instead of hiring one IT worker for every hundred or so normal PCs, for example, organizations only need about one or two IT pros for every thousand repurposed PCs, because they are easier to manage. Repurposed PCs usually last five to seven years, instead of the three-year lifespan of a normal PC.

This approach can lower upfront costs, but it is ultimately pricier than regular thin clients or zero clients because of the maintenance. Admins still have to license an antivirus product and manage updates on each PC. It is also a good amount of work to turn PCs into locked-down thin clients.

If admins do want to go the repurposed route, they should make sure the PCs are less than a year old to prevent low RAM availability and graphics performance limitations.

Next Steps

Consider malware protection on thin clients

Other VDI clients to keep in mind

Evaluate the long-term prospects of different VDI clients

Manage VDI thin clients

This was last published in February 2016

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