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Why you won't keep thin clients for a decade

Don't believe the hype -- thin clients don't last much longer in enterprise IT environments than PCs do. (They're still good, though.)

Flash back to 1999.

Citrix MetaFrame was new, and we all watched in amazement as our Wyse Winterms connected full Windows desktops. Those of us who were in IT back then remember all the virtues of thin clients: no moving parts, worthless without a connection to the server, high security because no data was stored on the device, a nine-year lifecycle, easy to manage and swap out, etc.

Wait, what? A nine-year lifecycle? We all believed it at the turn of the century, but who among those early adopters was still using their first batch of Wyse Winterm 2310SE thin clients in 2005, let alone in 2008?

Sure, there are a few cases where the terminals remained useable for that long, but most of us replaced them with newer models. The reason isn't that the hardware failed and could not be replaced, though. It's because, just like Terminal Services and Citrix MetaFrame, thin-client capabilities grew as the needs of the users grew.

The truth is, the majority of those early thin clients would still be running today if all you needed was Citrix MetaFrame on Windows NT 4.0 Terminal Server Edition, but that was before everyone needed multiple USB devices, Flash animations, audio/video, dual displays and high-resolution 3-D interfaces to do their jobs.

I'm not bashing thin clients, however. Many of those virtues are still applicable, and there are even some new ones. Management capabilities are richer than ever before, and there are new ways to turn PCs into thin clients while managing them with the same tools used to manage thin clients. Both Wyse and DevonIT have products that do just that.

There are also more companies making different kinds of thin clients. Some are considered "zero clients" because they contain no operating system. Each time they power on, they receive the latest connection information from a central location. They never need updating because they'll always get the most up-to-date information.

Some thin clients are tied to specific vendors or platforms. ClearCube and Sun make their own virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) products on which only their thin clients work. NComputing's terminals work only with nComputing's desktop virtualization hardware and software (and now Microsoft's MultiPoint server).

In addition, certain thin clients embed into wall jacks so they take up no disk space (ChipPC), while others make cards that convert PCs into hardware thin clients (Igel). Here's my reference list:

  • WYSE

  • ThinLabs

  • HP

  • Dell

  • Devon

  • 10Zig

  • Igel

  • nComputing (and partnership with LG)

  • ChipPC

  • Samsung PCoIP


  • ClearCube

There are many reasons to take advantage of thin clients in your organization, but don't use a superlong lifecycle as the determining factor in your purchase of them. The thin client you buy today will still power on in five or six years, but it's not likely to be useable because the needs of your users and capabilities of your desktop virtualization platform will change.

Gabe Knuth is an independent industry analyst and blogger, known throughout the world as "the other guy" at He has been in the application delivery space for over 12 years, and has seen the industry evolve from the one-trick pony of terminal services to the application and desktop virtualization of today. Gabe's focus tends to lean more toward practical, real-world technology in the industry, essentially boiling off the hype and reducing solutions to their usefulness in today's corporate environments.

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