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PCs are not always the cheapest or the most secure way for employees to get their work done. Thin clients are another option that can offer significant advantages to companies in varying industries. However, they do come with inherent drawbacks.
Thin client hardware is a basic computer that's networked to a powerful terminal server. The user interacts with the thin client as if it is a full PC, but all the files and applications are stored on the server.
Benefits of thin clients
Because the hardware requirements for thin clients are modest, they cost less than PCs. They typically include an older processor and minimal RAM. Some don't even have hard drives. This basic hardware also tends to last years longer than PC hardware.
Of course, costs vary depending on the type of thin client. There are desktop versions that resemble small PCs, as well as ones that look like large tablets created for use on factory floors. Laptop thin clients are popular, as well -- particularly Google Chromebooks. Because these mobile devices don't need powerful processors, they require less power and, therefore, they typically have longer battery lives than standard laptops.
Enterprise installations can benefit from energy savings, too. A regular PC might draw as much as 250 watts of power, and workstations even more. By contrast, thin clients might use 20 to 40 watts. The savings can add up with more users.
Thin client hardware is inherently more secure because the devices store files on a server, not a built-in hard drive. If a thin client is lost or stolen, it doesn't include a repository of files. In addition, determining who has access to each file is easy, and tracking who opened or modified files is equally simple.
With true thin clients, all of the software except for the basic operating system is stored on the server. This means that IT can install new versions of software quickly and easily without making changes to each client computer.
In the past, thin clients had problems with some USB peripherals; not basic ones, like keyboards and mice, but less common ones, like scanners, external hard drives and smartphones.
In recent years, companies that produce thin client software, such as Citrix and Dell Wyse, have worked hard to offer greater support for USB accessories. It's important to be sure that the client/server software IT selects meets user needs in this area. In addition, the hardware must have a sufficient number of ports.
Another issue is bandwidth and networking speed. When absolutely everything a thin client does requires access to a server, speed is critical. Consider 1000BASE-T as the ideal, though some organizations can get away with 100BASE-T. That said, other organizations will need 10 Gbps. The problem exacerbates if dozens or even hundreds of clients all use the same network. As a result, companies must have robust networks to prevent slowdowns caused by thin clients.
Mobility brings its own complications. Clients require either 4G LTE, or job sites with Wi-Fi access. In the real world, expect LTE to offer about 45 Mbps, well below the ideal Ethernet speed. Wi-Fi 802.11ac offers 200 Mbps in real-world conditions, though it can negatively affect both the Wi-Fi and LTE depending on the location. Choose your thin client carefully if users are going to have to depend on LTE. Still, crowding numerous computers into a small area that are all connecting to Wi-Fi requires careful network planning. In such situations, Ethernet is often preferable.
Another potential pitfall to avoid is choosing thin client hardware that is incapable of running the necessary client software. While the hardware requirements are generally modest for client software, they aren't negligible. To prevent problems, buyers should choose hardware after choosing the software.
Many organizations need their workers to have Microsoft Office or access to other productivity tools. Thin clients and servers can grant this access, but it's necessary to obtain a license for every copy of the applications the employees use.
Thin clients have such modest hardware requirements because they offload everything to servers. Therefore, it is critical for those servers to be able to handle the load. Insufficient server capacity can cause problems for everyone, so buyers must carefully plan how much capacity their organization requires.
Thin clients in use
Different types of businesses and industries can benefit from thin client hardware in diverse ways.
Perhaps the best example of the growing influence of thin clients is the way Chromebooks have come to dominate the education computer market. These inexpensive laptops are only capable of running a web browser, but they have access to Google's suite of productivity software via that browser. Students in classrooms across the U.S. utilize thin clients to get their work done, and these devices cost their school systems far less than a similar number of standard PCs.
Large law firms employ thin clients for their cost and efficiency benefits, but additional security is the real appeal. With documents stored on servers and not local machines, it's possible to control and track everyone who accesses these files, and a stolen laptop won't net a thief access to any confidential documents.
Telecommunications companies typically employ thousands of workers in corporate headquarters, regional offices and in the field. IT can remotely manage the software on all the thin clients from a central location and install updates. There are often enough thin clients in the building to see significant savings in electrical usage.
Thin clients stand up better than regular PCs in dusty conditions, a significant advantage in logistics. Clients without hard devices or fans can last years longer in load transfer or storage facilities. As a result, buyers should choose the appropriate design for their thin clients based on where users will work with them.
Thin clients are quite advantageous for the agriculture business, as well. Farmworkers armed with inexpensive, lightweight laptops using 4G LTE to connect to servers can use advanced tools to model crop yields, track pesticide coverage and more.
Another field that can benefit from the additional security of a client/server operation is healthcare. Patients demand that their health records be kept private, and storing them all in a central location is the best way to ensure that. At the same time, medical workers can use thin clients in a variety of ways to access relevant data in a range of locations, from hospital rooms to in-home visits.
A challenge for financial services is providing computers powerful enough to deal with escalating amounts of data. Rather than upgrading a large number of PCs every couple of years, a few application servers can receive these upgrades and the benefits can then immediately extend to all the thin clients across the organization.
An expensive PC contains more power than is necessary to run a point-of-sale terminal, making thin clients ideal in retail. Even better, they offer the advantages of centralized management. IT can easily provide support to stores scattered across a wide geographical area and even bring new stores online remotely.
Thin clients in the hospitality industry can take the form of smart TVs in guests' rooms, allowing customers to order services, access the internet and check out. Large hotel chains can benefit from other advantages, such as central management of computers spread around the world.
There is also rugged thin client hardware designed specifically for manufacturing. These can stand up to dust, extreme temperatures, shock and vibration far better than traditional PCs.
Workers in aerospace frequently need access to computers with powerful graphics capabilities to view and edit computer-aided design drawings. Rather than equipping every employee with a standard PC and an expensive graphics-processing unit, thin clients can run graphics applications off servers.