Choosing thin client devices: What to look for

On the lookout for thin client devices? Don't forget to consider application compatibility, protocol support, features and cost.

If your organization is looking at thin clients as alternatives to costly physical PCs and laptops, you need to know how to select the right ones.

The original "many to many" PC approach can be expensive, because each PC is a dedicated compute environment with its own isolated hardware and software requiring installation, maintenance, upgrades and support. Application and desktop virtualization eliminate the need for local execution or complex hardware/software configurations on endpoint devices. Instead, thin client devices allow for a "many to one" delivery approach. A thin client is a low-cost endpoint that relies heavily on a server for its computational role.

More on thin client devices

Understanding the thin client hype

Advancements of thin client devices

Changes in the thin client market

Benefits of thin client devices include centralized management, lower maintenance costs, reduced power consumption and standardization of services. Plus, companies can repurpose their existing investments in desktop hardware, operating systems, software and networks and extend the life of computing infrastructures. The best thin clients could be the machines an organization already owns.

Citrix Systems Inc., VMware Inc. and Microsoft provide virtualization platforms that make the adoption of thin clients practical for all types of environments. Since many enterprises already run at least one or more of these platforms, making the transition from traditional desktops to thin clients is less disruptive. Companies such as Hewlett-Packard Co., Dell Wyse, Pano Logic Inc. and NComputing have upgraded their thin client devices to better integrate with systems from virtualization industry leaders.

Desktop admins need to understand the features, costs and complexities of the different types of thin clients on the market. Here are a few things to keep in mind if you're selecting thin client devices for your environment.

Thin client device features

Cost. Thin clients support a wide range of features, from the most basic 2-D business-level graphics up to multiple monitors and even full-motion video. Remember, however, that the whole purpose of these devices is to be small, simple and inexpensive. More power and capabilities, such as video conferencing and 3-D graphics, bring a higher price. In addition, consider the cost and effort required to build the back-end infrastructure to support your thin-client and system design goals.

Display processing. With thin client devices, all of the processing occurs on the server so that only keyboard, video and mouse information is transmitted from the endpoint. The device needs only enough resources to effectively display the video information and provide mouse and keyboard I/O.

While this sounds like a simple proposition, the amount of data represented in even simple video display processing is quite large. A remote display protocol enables this communication to be fast, efficient, secure and easy to use. The protocol handles all of the communication between the back-end host and the thin client device, and it presents the user interface. Therefore, a protocol's efficiency and features directly affect the user experience. The quality of the end-user experience is based on a delicate balance among local computing power, network bandwidth, protocol efficiency and back-end processing capacity.

The leading players in this space today are Citrix's HDX brand, Microsoft's RemoteFX (the newest version of its Remote Desktop Protocol) and PC over IP that Teradici developed for VMware. For each remote display protocol, endpoints need client software that is compatible with the local operating environment and hardware features. When you choose a thin client, remember to consider the target protocol's requirements to effectively support both that protocol and your organization's size and back-end infrastructure.

Application support. You need to apply the same professional practices of research, pilot testing, reassessment and phased deployments with thin clients as you would with desktops.

New applications requiring heavy multimedia, video conferencing and 3-D graphics are not the best candidates for a thin client setup. That's because graphics-intensive applications require a lot of GPU power and won't always be able to transmit over the remote display protocol. As you look at thin client devices, consider which applications you need to deliver and whether you can pare down the ones that each user actually needs.

About the authors
Steve Greenberg
is the founder of Thin Client Computing, a leading technical consultancy in Scottsdale, Ariz. A pioneer and innovator in advanced deployments of thin client and virtualization technologies, he has been active in virtual computing since the early 1990s. He has received both the Microsoft MVP and Citrix CTP awards.

Bobbie Jones is an experienced IT systems administrator and has built and maintained a wide range of email, storage, network and virtualization systems for corporate, medical and higher educational applications. She has deployed and maintained environments with mobile devices, fat, thin and zero clients for several years.

This was first published in February 2013

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