Opinion

Are homebrewed thin client devices worth the effort?

In a recent state of procrastination, I started thinking about the value of homemade thin client devices -- and realized that they're often more trouble than they're worth.

I was sitting at my desk, looking over at a thin client that had made its way to my door for an evaluation. Since it's an Android thin client, I would need to set up a XenDesktop environment (something to connect to), then a XenMobile environment (something to manage it), both of which I was dreading doing because my lab is in a shambles at the moment.

Ever the procrastinator, I looked over to Twitter to see what was going on in the world, and I saw a tweet from Helge Klein that read, "A Raspberry Pi is exactly how a thin client should be: small, inexpensive, low power. Leaves you wondering why 'real' [thin clients] are so overpriced." This tweet was in response to a blog post touting a homemade Raspberry Pi-based thin client for around $150.

You wouldn't think that the tiny, cheap Raspberry Pi would be an able thin client device, especially in this day and age where even "thin" clients are packing a lot of horsepower under the hood. Hewlett-Packard just announced a quad-core thin client! Yet, accompanying the blog post is a video of the dirt-cheap thin client in action. At first glance, it looks surprisingly good, remoting Windows 8 and playing videos.

What this thin client device lacks in price, it makes up for with tweaks. The person who assembled it had to create a custom H.264 decoder so that video performance was up to snuff. He did a remarkable job, since past attempts at Raspberry Pi thin clients fell way short of the mark for anything beyond standard application usage. This decoder could find its way into a future Citrix Receiver for Linux build, so that could be solved. But there are plenty of other things to consider, too: assembly, support and, most importantly, management.

Challenges of DIY thin client devices

If you roll your own thin client devices, you have to spend time acquiring parts and assembling them into the final device. If you're familiar with manufacturing, you know how that one "golden screw" can hold up a product line. Doing this yourself means you're at the helm of your own supply chain. Thankfully, there are not many parts to acquire.

Supporting your own devices also adds to your workload. Not only do you need a level of expertise with the user interface, but you also have to have a more fundamental knowledge of what's going on behind the scenes. We're all geeks in one way or another, but we're also pretty busy with other things.

More on thin client devices

How to choose thin clients: FAQ

Comparing thin vs. thick vs. zero clients

A rundown of today's endpoints for VDI

Like it or not, management is high on the list for companies too. Some organizations are getting away from managing endpoints, instead focusing on managing the access to data center resources (even going so far as to treat virtual desktops as untrusted). If you're not one of those, and if you have users that aren't all that savvy, management might still be high on your list of priorities.

The point is that while you may be frustrated that you have to pay $300, $400, or even $500 for a thin client, you're paying for the ability to offload some of those additional responsibilities. You don't have to support them to the same level you would if you had created the devices yourself. You don't have to spend time acquiring and assembling them, and you don't have to spend time tweaking the devices to do your bidding.

Instead, you get devices that were purpose-built to be thin clients, as opposed to using a jack-of-all-trades device as one. Sure, there is room for improvement from the vendors, but it's not like the Raspberry Pi thin client device does anything to help that.

It comes down to convenience and spending your time wisely. If you have time to assemble devices like this one and they actually meet all your needs, then by all means, save the company some money. However, if you're strapped for time, need device consistency across all uses, and need management, you should see some value from traditional thin client devices from thin client vendors -- like this one, which is still waiting for me to take it out of the box.

This was first published in December 2013

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