FAQ: Sifting through thin client technology options

Lindsay Chase, Assistant Site Editor

With so many thin client devices in the market today, selecting the right ones for your desktop virtualization project can be a daunting task.

Opting for VDI thin clients

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over thick clients can improve virtual desktop security because they don't have hard drives or removable drive ports. To determine which thin client devices are the best fit for your virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) project, consider ease of deployment, cost and management capabilities. Repurposing PCs as thin clients is another option, when it's practical, as are zero clients.

The answers to these frequently asked questions about thin client devices will help you wrap your head around all the choices.

How do thin clients stack up against thick clients?

More on thin client devices:

Dell and HP churn out VDI hardware as thin client war heats up

Dell's Wyse acquisition transforms VDI thin client market

Thin client device market splinters on virtual desktops

Users can access virtual desktops directly from thin client hardware or from thick clients running thin client software, so it's important to weigh the pros and cons of both. Thin client devices tend to be more secure because they lack internal hard drives and removable ports, decreasing the risk of viruses and preventing users from copying data onto flash drives.

Plus, licensing for VDI thin clients is typically less expensive, because thick clients accrue additional costs for running thin client software on top of the operating system. Thick clients, however, may reduce maintenance costs because it’s easier to replace individual defective parts.

What factors should I consider when choosing thin client devices?

Deciding on a management approach is as important as choosing the technology itself. With central management, for instance, you can group together thin clients and set up common configurations for the group -- with room for exceptions. To choose the best thin clients for your environment, look for clients that are easy to deploy but still provide display protocol support.

Is repurposing PCs as thin client devices a viable option?

Absolutely. Converting PCs can reduce the initial cost of VDI deployment, but it may drive up maintenance costs depending on the PCs' age. Old PCs have a short shelf life and don't usually provide great graphics. Computers that are less than a year old are best for repurposing as thin clients, because they come with lots of RAM and provide more consistent performance. You should also consider how many PCs you want to repurpose.

What tools are available for converting PCs to thin client devices?

For Windows-based software, there's ThinLaunch Thin Desktop, triCerat triShell Kiosk Edition (TKE) and Microsoft Windows Thin PC. Microsoft's conversion product removes some features from the OS to keep the thin client technology simple, but you have to purchase a Virtual Desktop Access license and a Professional edition of Windows for the device.

A few non-Windows tools for converting PCs to thin clients include Devon IT VDI Blaster, Stratodesk NoTouch and ThinStation. You can install VDI Blaster through a Windows executable on the box or directly on a hard drive without Windows, while NoTouch provides a central management console for all your VDI thin clients. ThinStation is a free, open source conversion tool that supports VMware View, Citrix Systems XenDesktop and other platforms.

What are zero clients?

Thin clients put workloads onto back-end servers to make the client light and stateless, but they usually have some software that's installed and managed on the device itself. Zero clients, however, have nothing installed or configured directly on the devices. That means zero-client environments are managed on the server rather than the client itself, and they require no updates or patching.

This was first published in June 2012

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