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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 last published in March 2013

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What do you primarily use for VDI hardware?
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Zero Clients offer a consistent end user experience and ease of administration, (basically none) for both our local and remote user base. It is basically impossible to have a keyboard logger virus capture username and passwords on a zero client versus a thin or thick client.
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Zero Clients is far more better performance wise. We recommend to use it whereever possible. A thin client is more flexible due to support for more VDI/SBC platforms and is nearly as good as a Zero Client performance wise.

Regards,
Akie - akie@ea-data.com
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Well, we certainly can't forget about the licensing costs. I was excited about thin clients until I was confronted with the Microsoft VDA license at $100 per device per year. I quickly realized that my PCs under SA were less expensive long term than thin and zero clients. If figures that Microsoft and Intel would find a way to damper enthusiasm. In our case, repurposed PC worked best; then thick clients under SA and finally thin and zero.
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IT seems to like the zero clients, the end users say they take some getting used to. Once the users have adjusted to no longer having a tower on the desk or on the floor the reception seems to be good overall
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Thin client will be more compatible to most of the application at the moment
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pen an paper
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Thick clients as legacy hadware
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not yet using it
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I would like more information on all types Virtual Desktop options you have sent to jsmith21474@hotmail.com
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Well here we go again, terminals are back. the VMWare mainframe, and terminals at the desktop. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
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Don't forget EVGA for all your PcoIP End Point solutions. You guys mentioned Pano! www.evga.com/pcoip
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Thin clients because they are effective and more useful then only zero client.
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new to the product but I do security and just curieuse nice website I really like it
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We get great results with QWK2LRN thin clients for our school 1-2-1 classroooms
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Because i feel more comfort
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Bare metal Hypervisor (IDV) on ARM (QuadCore).
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Our experience has been that unless we move from a Thick to Thin client we don't get all the business benefits of adopting VDI. The major advantage of moving to thin client is the power savings. We have seen 70 - 80% power reduction in adopting Thin clients. Also another interesting issue we used to face with Thick clients are sulphur contamination in the HDD's. This ended up in mass failures of desktops and impacting the end-users productivity. Post moving to Thin clients the failure rate drastically came down as there is no moving parts as thick clients. Finally the desk space required to have a Thin client also was an important factor for ITES organizations.
-Sivakumar Ramamurthy
Anunta Tech
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HP thin clients ( with spice protocol client installed) Otherwise, these would act as zero clients
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Typically used to support our BYOD policy
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for minimizing the running cost of IT infrastructure
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With VMware View we find it best to use PCoIP compliant Zero Clients using Tera2 processors. These give the best end user experience.
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Re-use your existing hardware, save money, go green and experience all the benefits of thin client computing at a fraction of the costs of new hardware. Evaluate now for free: www.stratodesk.com/download
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zero clients, (in our case PCOIP) offer consistent end user experience and ease of administration, (virtually none) for both our local and remote users. We also like the increased security. It is virtually impossible to have a keyboard logger virus grab usernames and passwords on a zero client. Then consider the lower cost and stability....game over.
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