Just because almost every employee these days needs a computer doesn't mean they all need a powerful, expensive, stand-alone PC. Thin clients are a good option for many organizations.
Thin client hardware is a simple desktop or mobile device with a fast connection to a powerful remote server. The user interacts with the thin client as if it is a PC, but all the applications and files are actually stored on the server.
There are two main benefits for organizations that equip their workers with thin clients: One is that the total cost of the hardware is often much lower because thin clients are quite basic. The extra cost of the servers shouldn't offset these savings.
The other primary benefit is that with applications and files all running on servers, it's easier and cheaper for IT to maintain everything than if the information lived directly on users' endpoints.
A range of options
The capabilities of thin clients vary depending on the needs of the organization that uses them. Some organizations can employ ultrathin clients known as zero clients. Zero clients do not have a hard drive. In fact, the only thing stored locally on a zero client is the software that boots the operating system from the server.
A thin client stands in contrast to a fat client -- a traditional PC -- which is a computer that stores its own software and files. For reasons of cost or convenience, some companies use regular PCs as thin clients because there is client/server software available for sale that can make a general-purpose computer obtain its applications and storage from a server.
Thin client designs
IT might assign thin client hardware to all the employees who work in the organization's main office space every day. These could be ultrathin, which are the most secure and are a good fit when employees are unlikely to need their computers when they don't have direct access to the application server. A wide range of vendors, including HP, Dell, NComputing and Lenovo offer desktop thin clients.
A compute board is a computer at its most basic, and it can function as an extremely stripped down version of a thin client. It only has the bare essentials, such as a CPU, RAM, storage and ports. Compute boards are an option for an organization that wants the cheapest thin clients with a minimal number of ports and functionality. Raspberry Pi is the best-known provider of compute boards, but others, including Intel, supply them as well.
A desktop isn't right for everyone, though. Salespeople and other field workers might need mobile computers. As a result, many organizations must equip some of their users with notebook thin clients.
Google's Chrome OS popularized this type of computer. A Chromebook can only run a web browser, with users accessing all the other software from a server through the browser. Acer and Samsung are two vendors that offer Chromebooks. A number of companies make other types of thin client laptops, including HP and IGEL Technology.
Employees on a job site or in a warehouse can access files on a tablet thin client. These portable computers work best when it's more important for an employee to access information than it is for him to enter it. HP and 10ZiG make dedicated tablet thin clients.
Companies can also deploy tablets that stay fixed in place on factory floors. Users work with these tablets like desktops, but with the touchscreen taking the place of a keyboard and mouse. Manufacturers of this type of thin client hardware include Siemens and Advantech Co.
In some situations, it could make more sense to employ Apple iPads or Google Android tablets. These clients perform specific functions without wireless access to the server, but they also act as thin clients by displaying the contents of files stored remotely.
Ruggedized notebooks or tablet thin clients are most useful for workers in the field and can protect against rain and dust. Drop protection is also critical. Cases can add significant protection to standard tablets. Dell, HP and others make ruggedized computers in multiple designs.
Companies can utilize smartphones as thin clients when portability is the most important criteria. This is easier with devices that have USB-C ports that can be used to attach external monitors. Finding good client and server software for Android and Apple iOS can be challenging, though.
Samsung's DeX technology allows a smartphone to function like a PC when a keyboard and external display are connected. DeX is available on some high-end handsets.
Thin client specifications
By definition, the hardware requirements for all thin clients are modest. The whole point is for the client computer to perform only basic functions while the server does the hard work.
Some thin clients run versions of Windows and, therefore, require a processor made by Intel or Advanced Micro Devices (AMD). There are also operating systems for this type of computer that run on Intel or AMD processors, such as Dell's Wyse ThinOS. The majority of Chromebooks run Intel chips.
Any thin clients that use Intel processors typically use quad-cores with low clock speeds, negating the need for cooling fans, which is beneficial for mobile devices.
Some thin client computers run on advanced RISC machine (ARM) processors, including some Chromebooks. These chips power mobile phones and, therefore, require less power and generate little heat. They sometimes run various versions of Linux. Windows for ARM is not yet available.
True thin clients don't need very much RAM by their nature. Some thin client hardware includes as little as 512 MB, though others go up to 4 GB or even 8 GB. Regular PCs utilized as thin clients need enough RAM for their operating system to run easily.
Minimal local storage is another hallmark of thin clients. All files are stored on a server, so there's no need for much internal capacity. The extreme version of this is zero clients, which include no storage at all. Compute boards often use Secure Digital cards to hold any local files.
Ports are a different story. Workers with thin clients need access to the same accessories as someone with a regular PC, such as a keyboard and mouse. Users also expect multiple USB ports, as well as video ports. Some desktop clients even offer multiple video ports.
Because thin clients depend on accessing servers more than traditional PCs, networking is critical. Desktop clients need an Ethernet connection, while devices in a warehouse might depend on Wi-Fi. Computers meant to go into the field should ideally have 4G LTE built-in, but can utilize mobile hotspots, as well.