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Navigating today's end-user devices: From thin clients to smartphones

As IT becomes more virtual and more mobile, the variety of end-user devices and clients is growing. Get the lowdown on all the options out there.

There is a greater variety of devices and clients today that can host your desktops and applications, so let's review what's out there.

End-user devices are no longer labeled as PCs but are now referred to as "endpoints." Why the change in terminology? The answer is simple: A flood of alternative devices has hit the market, and mobile usage is on the rise.

A Windows Server connected to a Windows PC has become an outdated paradigm. Add to that the explosion of bring your own device (BYOD) initiatives and the ever-evolving smartphone, and you have a landscape that has become incredibly complex to navigate, leaving many IT managers wondering what could possibly be next.

Supporting dissimilar devices doesn't have to be a horror story. IT managers can turn to some powerful tools, as well as collective knowledge, to tame the wild beasts of the modern endpoint world. What's more, allowing workers to use their favorite devices may lead to improved productivity. When investigating the viability of a given endpoint, administrators should consider connectivity, operating systems, security, wireless support, applications and management.

It's important to understand all endpoints that you could implement or support in your environment. Endpoints fall under two classification schemes -- device type and client. 

Client classifications

The best place to start is with the following client classifications:

Thick clients: These are traditional PCs, which have their own operating systems and locally installed applications. Thick clients interface with the network to create and access data, and they communicate with other users.

Thin clients: Thin clients are similar to thick clients, with one major exception -- the operating system, applications and other client elements are all stored out on the network. Execution of applications can take place on the client, but only by accessing the network infrastructure.

Zero clients: Different from other endpoint technologies, zero clients do not have any local software installed and rely on firmware to attach to a remote desktop that is hosted elsewhere.

New devices -- such as zero clients from Fujitsu, Dell Wyse, Hewlett-Packard and Teradici -- are readily available. Note that zero clients are not normally deployed under a BYOD initiative. These endpoints fall squarely under the realm of desktop virtualization and virtual desktop infrastructure.

More on today's end-user devices

Choosing thin clients: What to look for

Why Android thin clients won't pick up

Q&A: Mobility and desktop access

The differences between client classifications affect how networks are configured, how applications are delivered and, most importantly, what the end user may experience. 

For instance, thin clients and zero clients require server processing power, large amounts of storage and significant bandwidth. On the other hand, fat clients may require only local resources and may have low throughput and latency requirements.

Devices to run those clients

A plethora of devices can take on any of the above client classifications. IT managers have to pick and choose which devices to support and how a device's connectivity will affect the network and associated servers, storage devices and security systems. End-user devices include the following:

Portable PCs/Macs: This category includes laptops, netbooks, ultrabooks, notebooks and so on. They run various flavors of Windows, different versions of Mac OS and Linux, and whatever else the software community may throw at them.

Portable computers also may use different CPUs, offer different screen resolutions and use different connectivity options. Ironically, this is one of the easier end-user devices to support, simply because portable PCs have a lot in common with traditional desktops.

A portable PC can be configured as a thick client or a thin client with relative ease; all you need is reliable connectivity, which you can get with a physical Internet connection or a Wi-Fi hotspot.

The real trick for IT managers is to secure those devices and, more importantly, the corporate resources that those devices can access. After all, when something is portable, it is also losable. Here, IT managers can turn to VPNs, intrusion-detection systems, mobile device management (MDM) software and user authentication tools such as Network Access Control to protect those devices.

Tablets: It is no secret that tablet computers are on the rise, led by Apple's iPad. Apple is not the only player in this market, and other available tablets run Windows, Android and other operating systems.

Integrating and supporting tablets may present the biggest challenge to enterprise IT managers. These consumer devices are also becoming the cornerstone of many BYOD initiatives, simply because end users (including many executives) love them.

However, tablets are often incompatible with most corporate applications and are tied to proprietary app stores, making it almost impossible to install customized applications on the end-user devices.

Many IT departments have been forced to rely on Web applications, which are hosted on the businesses' own servers (or those of a cloud services provider). The problem with Web apps is that they may behave differently on different devices because of different display resolutions or incompatible browser technologies.

Smartphones: These are perhaps the most volatile of all endpoint devices. Smartphones can be broken down into a few subcategories based on operating systems: Android, iOS, BlackBerry OS and ones that run something else altogether. It doesn't end there, though. Smartphones come in all shapes and sizes and offer many different options. What's more, the associated OSes come in multiple versions, each with its own nuances.

Fortunately, there are tools that can bring order to some of the chaos. To get the most out of these tools, IT admins need to accept added complexity and a high level of maintenance. And they should brace themselves for sticker shock. Still, MDM suites can help organizations secure and deploy apps to smartphones and tablets.

The days of "plug and play" are in the past, so enterprise IT shops are going to have to adapt to this new landscape of multiple end-user devices. To stay ahead of the curve, IT must take more of a "plan and play" approach.


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