Thin client device market splinters on virtual desktops

Choosing the right thin client in a sea of devices built for specific virtual desktop environments is a balancing act that involves much thought and a long term plan.

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Converged infrastructure may be trendy in data centers, but for clients, have vendors splintered their hardware lines with devices that support specific virtual desktop technologies? This creates a struggle for IT departments when they must choose a platform among devices chock-full of limitations.

For example, some thin-client devices carry the "Citrix HDX Ready" logo, but they don't actually support all of the latest HDX features. One IT pro said that when he moved to VMware View last year, he had plenty of virtual desktop choices, but he still had a tough time finding one that met all of his company’s needs.

Joe Steele, director of IT at Weissman, Nowack, Curry & Wilco in Atlanta, said he intended to use Hewlett-Packard thin clients. But HP didn't offer a product that supported all the law firm’s peripherals and its unified messaging system with voicemail integration.

Steele said he eventually adopted Wyse's P20 thin clients with PC over IP support and full USB peripheral interoperability over LAN and high-latency WAN connections. Using thin clients with virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) works for the firm because many of its employees work remotely.

VDI and thin-client desktops help IT shops manage enterprise desktops from a central location. The thin clients are also power-efficient, last longer than PCs and have fewer moving parts that could break.

"We could have gone with a [Windows] embedded client, but having the Windows environment on the desktop costs more," Steele said. "We now deliver virtual desktops remotely, and we have over 60 months for our lifecycle as opposed to the 36-month PC lifecycle."

The thin-client buffet
The market for thin clients is diverse today because vendors want to deliver "skinny" PC replicas that meet the demand for simple endpoint management. But there is only so much vendors can do with zero clients or thin clients with cramped software, so they end up delivering many different versions of thin clients, said Mark Margevicius, an analyst at Gartner Inc.

The vendor explanation is that the post-PC client device market is diverse because one size does not fit all in the virtual desktop world. "When customers were only using Terminal Services or Citrix Presentation Server, our roadmap was simple," said Jeff Groudan, HP's director of commercial desktop client marketing.

In addition to traditional thin clients with Windows embedded, there are zero clients with no operating system or moving parts that can break. There are multiseat computing clients that let multiple end users access their desktops through a shared client device and mobile thin clients that look an awful lot like laptops.

The mobile computing trend bred the new mobile thin-client platforms, which have smaller screens and longer battery life than a laptop. The Wyse X90m7 mobile thin client, for instance, has HD multimedia capabilities and improved security for mobile workers. It runs Windows Embedded or SUSE Linux, connects to existing IT infrastructures, and supports Citrix XenApp, Citrix XenDesktop, Microsoft Terminal Server and VMware View.

"You look at the new mobile thin clients -- they look a lot like a PC to me," said Gartner's Margevicius. "It’s because thin-client vendors are attempting to replicate PC functionality, so they need memory and processing power -- but they don’t want to be called a PC."

Vendors often design thin clients for very specific environments, so they can't be repurposed easily. Take the new Dell OptiPlex FX170 and FX130 thin-client offerings, for instance: The FX170 is designed specifically for multimedia and content creation, while the FX130 is intended for application and task-based environments.

Enterprises that invest in those types of thin clients have to be sure their environments won't change in the near future. And although these platforms can technically live longer than PCs, they are so technology-specific they become outdated and need to be replaced far before the end of their lifecycles, according to analysts.

Of course, vendors have an answer to that problem, too. HP and Wyse just introduced "smart" thin clients that are more flexible than traditional thin clients. For example, HP's new line of smart clients, due out soon, can be used in Citrix XenDesktop environments with HDX, in VMware View or in Microsoft Session Virtualization via RDP 6.

And of course, there are netbooks, tablets like the iPad and phones now doubling as PCs. The new Motorola Atrix, for example, is a smartphone that comes with a docking station to turn it into a Linux desktop. It comes preloaded with Citrix Receiver so users can access their virtual desktops and applications.

Though there are clearly many new client platforms to choose from, at the end of the day, the benefits of all these new client platforms are the same: centralized management of secure desktops that aren’t Windows PCs.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Bridget Botelho or follow @BridgetBotelho on Twitter.

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