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How should IT assess zero client vs. thin client devices?

Zero clients and thin clients can simplify the endpoints users work with in VDI deployments. The makeup of each option affects the benefits it delivers.

Both thin clients and zero clients offer a number of benefits, such as reduced cost, simplified maintenance, improved...

security and energy efficiency.

The zero client vs. thin client debate is about subtle distinctions. For example, a thin client is more of a pared-down desktop, whereas a zero client is closer in concept to older computer display terminal hardware.

Differences between zero and thin clients

Thin clients run an OS, require a hard drive, support removable storage and can handle multiple remote display protocols. On the other hand, zero clients do not run an OS, do not include a hard drive and do not support removable storage. Zero clients are usually specific to a single protocol, as well.

These physical differences between zero client vs. thin client hardware mean that zero clients are easier to maintain and require fewer updates, helping IT minimize endpoint management and support costs. In addition, setting up and configuring zero clients is faster and easier than it is with thin clients because zero clients don't have as many parts.

When comparing zero client vs. thin client options, the stripped-down nature of zero clients also gives them the edge when it comes to security. Without an OS, hard drive or the ability to connect to external drives, zero clients have almost no attack surface for hackers to exploit with viruses or malware. Zero clients are also better protected from issues caused by poor end-user behavior. For example, users cannot install infected software or download malware to flash drives.

Organizations sticking with their current desktop virtualization platform for a while should seriously consider zero clients.

The lack of an OS in zero clients results in faster boot times and desktop image delivery. In addition, zero clients are fine-tuned for a specific remote display protocol, which is built directly into the client's firmware. This simplicity gives video and graphics performance a boost over thin clients.

On the other hand, the built-in protocol makes zero clients less flexible, which can lead to vendor lock-in. Thin clients support multiple protocols, so IT can use them with more virtual desktop products and take advantage of their flexibility.

The irony here is that zero clients are likely to last longer than thin clients because they have simpler mechanics. In addition, zero clients' smaller footprint makes them more energy efficient. These factors, along with their lower maintenance requirements, give zero clients a superior ROI. Organizations can quickly lose this advantage if they end up swapping desktop virtualization platforms, forcing them to scrap the clients because they don't support the new protocol.

Organizations sticking with their current desktop virtualization platform for a while should seriously consider zero clients in the zero client vs. thin client debate. IT must keep in mind, however, that zero client users won't be able to install software on their systems or attach removable storage devices. Some users might not like these restrictions, but these limits are a benefit for many IT pros.

This was last published in November 2018

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Does the simplicity of zero clients outweigh the risk of vendor lock-in? Why or why not?
Hi Robert - good article. I wanted to comment on 2 items that jumped out. Zero clients do in fact support removable storage devices, via USB Redirection, and are passed into the virtual desktop. Also, some thin clients uses less power than zero clients, for example Dell Wyse 3040 uses <4 watts and many zero clients use more than that. Things have moved so fast in this space, it's hard to keep up on what's new! #iworkfordell -Chris
Thanks for pointing this out, Chris. That's very helpful. And yes, you're right, the space is moving so quickly, it's hard to keep up. But that too is good information for decision-makers to have so they're certain that they're working with the most current information. -Robert