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Thin clients aren't as 'dumb' as they used to be

IT vendors have heard customer complaints about the limitations of thin-client computing. A variety of processing options have emerged -- balancing "thick" and thin-client devices.

In the old days -- you know, like five years ago -- thin-client devices were pretty "dumb." In other words, a thin client was a more-or-less stateless device used to access remote applications. It didn't really do anything except process keystrokes, mouse movements and screen updates.

All that "thin" on the client side meant that the corresponding servers to power these clients became extra "thick." It's not that thin client terminals made processing go away: They just relocated it from the client to the server. And while less processing on the client makes sense in many cases, it also required the associated servers take on a greater -- and more expensive -- role.

So as thin clients became more poplar, people started to wonder, "You know, do we actually have to use thin clients to do what we want to do? These servers are really expensive -- maybe we can move some processing back to the client?"

Moving processing back to the client -- what a novel idea!

Of course, people who love thin clients don't just want to go back to the old "thick-client" model because that would negate all the reasons they left in the first place. But taking an extreme "thick" or extreme "thin" position doesn't make sense in every case, especially since technologies have emerged that can give you the best of both worlds.

For example, thin clients running Windows XP Embedded Edition can do some things locally, like browsing the Web and watching videos. This is great because admins don't have to figure out how to remotely deliver video, flash and all those other hard things remotely.

Unfortunately, XP Embedded thin-client devices tend to be pricey -- many times more expensive than low-end PCs. And although the savings of thin-client systems are usually related to the operational expenses and not the acquisition costs, putting in a $400 thin client can be a tough pill for customers to swallow.

Sales of XP Embedded thin clients have been OK but not stellar in the past few years. The primary complaints against it are that (1) It's Windows, which people just don't want to deal with on their thin clients, and (2) the devices that run it are too expensive.

Fortunately, thin-client vendors have heard this feedback. Wyse recently launched a C series of ultra-cheap thin clients that have an embedded multimedia processor. (Traditional ultra-cheap thin clients have not been able to run video locally, so an expensive server infrastructure was required for users who wanted a good Web or multimedia experience.) The C series furthers this "best of both worlds" approach: They're super-cheap thin clients that don't have to run Windows locally but retain the ability to offload multimedia from the servers to the clients.

Another avenue for those who are sick of traditional thin client computers is the "zero client" concept. Pioneered by Sun and recently embraced by companies such as Pano Logic and Wyse, a zero client is like a thin client but has no local storage capability whatsoever. (Traditional thin clients have flash memory that retains the operating system and each device's specific configuration settings.) Zero clients are great because they are 100% configured and managed from a central location.

Regardless of your disposition towards thin clients --superthin, kinda thin, ultrathin, not-so-thin -- there's probably a thin client out there for you. Things are certainly different in the thin-client space today compared with the situation of even a few years ago.

Brian Madden, Independent Industry Analyst and Blogger
Brian Madden is known throughout the world as an opinionated, supertechnical, fiercely independent desktop virtualization expert. He has written several books and over 1,000 articles about desktop and application virtualization. Madden's blog,, receives millions of visitors per year and is a leading source for conversation, debate and discourse about the application and desktop virtualization industry. He is also the creator of BriForum, the premier independent application delivery technical conference.

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