This content is part of the Conference Coverage: VMworld 2016 conference coverage

Cloud-hosted desktops force new thin client devices to adapt

At VMworld 2016, Dell, HP Inc. and IGEL Technology increase support for cloud desktops running on their thin clients. Vendors must keep up as cloud adoption rises.

LAS VEGAS -- Thin client devices are evolving to meet the demands of cloud-based desktop and application delivery.

Adoption of desktops and applications as a service has increased over the past few years as businesses see the benefits of offloading infrastructure management to cloud service providers. The thin client market, however, has taken a hit thanks to cheaper PCs closing the price gap. To keep relevant and entice more desktop virtualization shops, several thin client vendors -- including Dell, HP Inc. and IGEL Technology -- added features for cloud-hosted desktops at VMworld 2016.

Using today's thin clients to support cloud-hosted desktops and apps often means skimping on performance and security, said Todd Knapp, CEO at Envision Technology Advisors LLC, an IT services firm in Pawtucket, R.I. Thin clients have limitations at the OS level and don't always support emerging technologies or features that organizations might want for cloud-hosted workloads, such as GPU offload for media-intensive applications.

"They're running 'just enough OS' implementations of operating systems," Knapp said. "It doesn't have the entire Windows subsystem."

For thin client devices to function better with cloud-hosted desktops, vendors need to get away from offering proprietary operating systems that don't offer a full set of features, Knapp said. For instance, some of Dell's thin clients use the Wyse ThinOS operating system rather than Windows.

That's been a limitation for the IT department at Altra Federal Credit Union based in Onalaska, Wisc. The banking provider isn't considering cloud desktops yet because it doesn't feel the cloud is secure enough for the financial data it handles, but it has run into issues supporting USB peripherals on its Dell Wyse thin clients, said a systems administrator at the company who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Thin client devices often lack support for certain peripherals, which is something IT should look into before choosing thin client devices for on-premises or cloud-hosted virtual desktops.

"Peripherals are so key," said Tommy Tang, principal EHR application analyst at University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, which uses Dell Wyse thin clients. "It is probably going to be one of the biggest challenges that you're going to have with [virtual desktops]."

Thin, zero clients boost protocol support

Zero clients are especially problematic when hosting cloud-hosted desktops or apps. These lightweight endpoints often work with one specific remote display protocol, and cloud service providers tend to limit which protocols they support, so there's no guarantee of compatibility.

To that end, IGEL added support for VMware's proprietary Blast Extreme remote display protocol to its entire line of thin and zero client devices. Blast integration allows IGEL to accelerate apps and multimedia more than they could before because it's based on the H.264 video codec, said Jeff Kalberg, a technology evangelist with the company. That can help IT deliver better audio and video experiences to cloud-hosted desktops.

Plus, because Blast is based on open technology -- as opposed to competitor PC over IP (PCoIP), owned by Teradici -- VMware can work with partners to let other companies build technologies on top of Blast.

Two of the biggest thin client vendors in the market, Dell and HP Inc., did just that. Dell announced support for Blast on its Windows Embedded thin clients running Horizon 7 at VMworld. HP added support for Blast to its Smart Zero Clients, including a new model, the t630 device. The Smart Zero Clients now work with any protocol, including Citrix's Independent Computing Architecture, PCoIP and Microsoft's Remote Desktop Protocol.

HP Inc. also plans to take another step toward supporting cloud-hosted desktops by offering a subscription-based purchasing model for its thin clients by the end of this year, said Jeff Groudan, the company's vice president and general manager of thin clients.

What's new in Blast 2.0

The new version of VMware's protocol, Blast 2.0, will also add support for Fujitsu clients and Raspberry Pi devices. In addition, Blast 2.0 will support NVIDIA's new M10 graphics card, which can drive down hosted desktop costs by allowing for more user density per card, VMware said. Better optimization for desktop delivery over the WAN via VMware's partnership with Riverbed, as well as support for Windows 10 and Windows Server 2016, could also prove useful for organizations looking to deliver cloud desktops with VMware's protocol.

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