Guide to choosing and managing VDI thin clients

Everything you need to know about thin client benefits, product options and management

Thin clients make the VDI world go round. A thin client is a slimmed-down endpoint device that doesn't do any of the computing processing on the device itself; it relies on a network connection to the data center, where the virtual desktop is hosted.

There is a lot to consider when it comes to thin clients: What features do you need? How will you manage them? Do you need thin client devices in the first place? They are a great way to provide slim, manageable endpoints for virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) users, but there are other options for VDI hardware, too.

In this guide, learn about the benefits of VDI thin clients, how to choose the right ones for your environment and how these endpoints compare to thick and zero clients.

Table of contents:

Choosing VDI thin clients

What to look for in thin clients
When you're choosing thin client devices, consider whether you can centrally manage them and whether you'll configure them all identically. Also take into account remote display protocol support: Cheap options don't have the best support, and vendor-specific thin clients usually only work with that vendor's protocol. Finally, how many advanced features do you need? Browser redirection and other capabilities can add to client complexity and defeat the purpose of having a slimmed-down endpoint.

Considering cost, display and app support
Remember that the point of VDI thin clients is for them to be simple and inexpensive. Video conferencing, multimedia and 3-D graphics support will add to the cost. However, those capabilities are important for many users, especially those who require computer-aided design or 3-D apps to do their work. To make sure your thin clients can support those types of applications, take note of the display protocol quality and how much network bandwidth you'll require.

Thin client options on the market
There are a variety of VDI thin clients available from major vendors, as well as smaller companies such as DevonIT, ChipPC, 10zig, nComputing and ThinLabs. Your choice will depend on your requirements and which vendors you work with already. Dell's acquisition of Wyse brought a more customizable, fully integrated thin client to the market, and Hewlett-Packard released a zero client that takes advantage of Power over Ethernet systems.

Repurposing PCs as VDI thin clients

Determining which PCs to convert to thin clients
Using your existing PCs to access virtual desktops is a great way to save on hardware, costs and training. Still, it's not just a matter of adding a shortcut; you need to manage virtual desktop updates and consider which PCs you'll use. For instance, computers that are more than three years old may fail more easily and probably won't support the latest graphics. You should also consider the screen size and quality -- is it something virtual desktop users will want to use?

Tools for PC-to-thin client conversion
There are a few tools out there to help you convert PCs into thin clients. First, there is Windows-based thin client software such as ThinLaunch Thin Desktop and triCerat triShell Kiosk Edition. Just make sure you have Software Assurance before you use these tools. Other non-Windows-based options that work in VMware View or Citrix XenDesktop environments include Stratodesk, ThinStation, DevonIT and more.

Using XenClient to repurpose PCs
If you run Citrix XenDesktop Enterprise, you might not realize that you can use XenClient Enterprise to essentially convert PCs to thin clients. A service VM that runs Linux has a built-in browser, Remote Desktop Protocol client and Citrix Receiver for Linux -- meaning you can run XenClient without any VMs, basically as a secure thin client.

How thin clients compare to other VDI hardware

Thin vs. thick vs. zero clients
You can use thick clients for desktop virtualization, but that eliminates many of the benefits of VDI, because you're not saving on hardware. Thin clients help you reduce hardware and power consumption, apply base images to virtual desktops users and centralize management, but they don't suit every organization. Zero clients are another option; they require no configuration or software and can be even more cost-effective and power-saving than thin clients.

Other ways to access virtual desktops
Accessing a virtual desktop from a tablet is also a possibility, but it doesn't always provide the best user experience. Many Windows applications aren't meant for touch-screen use, and remote users tend to lack the necessary bandwidth. To see how the tablet method compares to others, check out all the pros and cons of different endpoint options for VDI.

Android as a thin client option
Bring your own device (BYOD) programs often take into account Apple devices, but what about accessing a virtual desktop from an Android device? There would be a number of benefits to using the Android platform, which could serve as an open source version of the Linux-based thin clients on the market. However, Android was made for mobile, so it doesn't lend itself to desktop use yet. Even if it improved mouse and display support, it wouldn't be as good as a dedicated thin client and would still require OS management and updates.