Many of the benefits of putting desktops in the data center result from putting the right devices in front of users, so you need to know how to choose the right thin client devices.
A good thin client can make it far easier to support users than conventional PCs and allow employees to work from different locations with little fuss. Poor device selection, however, can lead to the same desktop support costs as a full PC and leave employees frustrated by poor performance.
Enterprises may replace PCs every three years, but thin client devices usually last five to seven years. That means the wrong thin client can cause years of regret. Critical factors in reviewing thin client options include consistency, manageability, performance and, of course, purchase cost. Part one of this series tackles consistency and manageability.
Ideally, IT administrators would have all users on the same or very similar devices -- with as few exceptions as possible. When an organization has a variety of terminals, employees will have preferences about which ones they use. The support team would then be under pressure to provide a unique terminal for each user at every place he or she works.
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When an entire site is on a consistent model, if 80% of users require a feature, it's easier to configure the same thin client devices to deliver that feature to all who need it. For instance, providing all users with a larger screen is likely to help with acceptance.
There will be some exceptions: If only the receptionists need dual monitors for the phone system dashboard or a scientist needs a serial port to get data from an instrument, then it's appropriate for them to have a different model of thin client.
The more interchangeable the thin client devices are, the lower your ongoing support costs will be. If you have a variety of terminals, you may end up with a lot of help desk calls to relocate specific terminals as staffers move around.
Thin client manageability
A central management infrastructure for thin client devices is critical for long-term cost reductions. Not all management platforms are created equal.
Spend some time with your preferred vendor's tool and find out how well it fits your environment. Consider changing the terminal model or vendor if the tool is inflexible or hard to use. Some vendors have different tools for particular thin client options.
Look for a tool that allows policy to be applied to groups of thin clients and allows bulk updating of firmware, ideally automatically as the devices boot. If an endpoint management tool will work well with existing hardware or asset management systems, so much the better.
One manageability test is with the branch office. If you are deploying thin client devices to remote sites, then you want a thin client that remote staffers can deploy. To test this, take two thin clients to the site, one still in its manufacturer wrapping. Set up the first one on a desk, and get it to a working state. Then hand the still-wrapped one to an on-site person and ask him to swap it with the one you set up. The aim here is to see whether a new thin client can be shipped directly to a site when one breaks.
An even more extreme test is to start with an empty desk, with just network connectivity and power, rather than a thin client to replace. Ideally, the new client shouldn't need any setup before it goes to a site, and on-site IT staff shouldn't need training.
A terminal that works well with the branch-office test is going to generate lower support costs than one where the IT team must load a specific image onto the client before it goes to a site. The worst manageability score goes to deployments in which thin clients are built by following a 10-page checklist and each device must be rebuilt for a specific user.
Generally, zero clients have simpler management needs than thin-client options. The difference is that a zero client is an appliance that has minimal configurability or flexibility and is usable with only one virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) product.
Some zero clients use a simple firmware on standard PC CPUs, such as Wyse's Xenith line, while PC over IP, or PCoIP, zero clients like the HP t310, Wyse P25 and a wealth of other models use custom chips from Teradici.
Thin clients require an operating system and all of the attendant patching and configuration. Thin clients use standard CPUs and often have standard OSes. Wyse has 25 different models, and many other vendors, including 10Zig, Hewlett-Packard and Fujitsu, have their own ranges.
The simpler the device on the user desktop is, the more manageable it typically is. Zero clients may be preferable to thin client devices for VDI deployments when users don't need many functions, such as in retail, educational or shipping use cases. For some devices, the management tool is a few extra Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol, or DHCP, settings and a folder with a few files in it.
In other cases, a local operating system is necessary even if the main desktop is in the data center. In the past, remote display protocols couldn't handle multimedia websites, so a local Web browser and media player were often required to provide an adequate user experience.
This shouldn't be an issue with modern high-performance display protocols. Even animated websites, such as Microsoft's default Internet Explorer homepage, display well. Currently, the biggest drivers for local operating systems are wireless, virtual private networks (VPNs) and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP).
Wireless network connectivity can be a necessity. Temporary offices may use Wi-Fi if there's not enough time to deploy a wired network, and mobile staffers may use 3G/4G for thin-client laptops. A thin client's local operating system can configure a wireless card and run a VPN client or VoIP softphone, but most zero clients are incapable of doing that.
VPNs are sometimes used to guarantee secure telework, although many VDI products have their own features for providing secure access without a VPN.
VoIP has been gaining attention as people realize that the staff mobility enabled by VDI needs to be reflected in the telephony environment. Most telephony products have some sort of VDI integration to enable a softphone to work inside the virtual desktop but use the thin client to make the actual VoIP call. This requires software installed on both the virtual desktop and the thin client, so a telephony product works with only some types of thin clients, most often those that run Windows 7.