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VDI hardware comparison: Thin vs. thick vs. zero clients

Thin clients aren't on a diet; they just do less processing than 'fat' clients. Devices such as the iPad are also VDI hardware options.

When it comes to virtual desktop infrastructure, administrators have a lot of choices. You may have wondered about the differences between VDI software options, remote display protocols or all the licenses out there. In this series, we tackle some of the biggest head-scratchers facing VDI admins to help you get things straight.

When you deploy VDI, you need to figure out what hardware your virtual desktops will run on.

To host virtual desktops, you have a lot of choices: thin clients, zero clients and smart clients -- not to mention tablets and mobile devices. Thin clients and other slimmed-down devices rely on a network connection to a central server for full computing and don't do much processing on the hardware itself. Those differ from thick clients -- basically traditional PCs -- that handle all the functionality of a server on the desktop itself.

Understanding the benefits, challenges and cost implications of all these VDI hardware options will help you make the right choice. Let's get this straight:

Thick clients

It's possible to use thick clients for desktop virtualization, but many organizations don't because it doesn't cut down on overall hardware and requires all local software. If you use traditional PCs to connect to virtual desktops, you don't get many of the benefits of VDI, such as reduced power consumption, central management and increased security.

How thick clients compare to thin
Since a thick client is basically a PC running thin client software, it is usually more costly than a thin client device. Plus, thick clients have hard drives and media ports, making them less secure than thin clients. Finally, thin clients tend to require less maintenance than thick ones, although thin client hardware problems can sometimes lead to having to replace the entire device.

Thin clients

With thin client hardware, virtual desktops are hosted in the data center and the thin client simply serves as a terminal to the back-end server. Thin clients are generally easy to install, make application access simpler, improve security and reduce hardware needs by allowing admins to repurpose old PCs.

What to look for in thin client devices
Thin clients are meant to be small and simple, so the more advanced features you add, the more expensive they get. As you choose thin client devices, consider whether you need capabilities such as 3-D, video conferencing and multi-monitor support. You should also take into account your remote display protocol and how much display processing your back end can supply.

Aside from being cheap and uncomplicated, thin clients should also offer centralized management. For instance, you can automatically apply profile policies to groups of thin clients with similar configurations. That tends to be easier than individual manual management. Plus, you want your VDI hardware to be simple enough for nonveteran IT staff or those at remote branch offices to be able to deploy.

Zero clients

Zero clients are gaining ground in the VDI market because they're even slimmer and more cost-effective than thin clients. These are client devices that require no configuration and have nothing stored on them. Vendors including Dell Wyse, Fujitsu, Hewlett-Packard and Pano Logic offer zero client hardware.

Series: Let's get this straight

Comparing remote display protocols

Application virtualization smackdown

Clearing up Microsoft VDI licensing: SA vs. VDA vs. CDL

How cloud-hosted desktops differ: Comparing VDI, DaaS

Pros and cons of zero clients
So what are the benefits of this kind of VDI hardware? First off, zero clients can be less expensive than thick and thin clients. Plus, they use less power and can simplify client device licensing.

Still, there's a catch: Vendors often market zero clients as requiring no management or maintenance, which isn't always true. Some products do require software or memory and other resources. In addition, zero clients tend to be proprietary, so organizations could run into vendor lock-in.

Other VDI hardware routes

But wait -- there are even more VDI hardware options. In today's mobile era, some people are starting to use tablets or smartphones to run virtual desktops.

Using the iPad as a VDI client
With faster network speeds and improved screen resolution over the past few years, tablets are now up to the task of presenting a virtual desktop. Highly mobile workers and executives are good candidates for connecting to VDI via an iPad, for example. Still, remember that tablets don't offer a mouse and many Windows applications aren't conducive to a touch interface.

Repurposing old PCs as VDI hardware
If you're thinking about deploying VDI -- and tablets are too high-tech for you at this point -- you might consider recycling old PCs to use as thin clients. That saves money, plus it's green. Just make sure your PC candidates aren't too old, or else they won't provide solid graphics performance and may be prone to failure.

This was first published in March 2013

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