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How Linux thin clients have improved

VDI shops should consider Linux-based thin clients as endpoints for their users for several reasons, including the fact that they are cheaper than Windows thin clients.

In the past, Linux thin clients had too many shortcomings to be a realistic option for users to access their virtual applications and desktops from, but times have changed.

Older Linux thin clients were cheap devices that really only worked for the simplest of tasks and couldn't support many peripheral devices. Graphical performance was low and often only allowed for a single display with no dedicated graphics adapter. In addition, for users working with Windows apps and desktops, the Linux OS would often invade their experience. It might just be the Linux cursor replacing the Windows pointer, but in extreme cases, the whole Linux desktop would show up when users were expecting only Windows applications.

Fortunately, many of these issues are in the past, so Linux thin clients are no longer merely a budget option with limited capabilities. In fact, Linux thin clients from various vendors now include features to suit many demanding use cases.

What's different?

Modern Linux thin clients are full-powered PCs with multicore, 64-bit CPUs and graphics processing units (GPUs). Typically, the Linux version will use a smaller flash disk for its operating system compared to a Windows thin client. In terms of graphical performance, some Linux thin clients use dedicated GPUs and can drive multiple monitors, including 4K screens, with excellent performance.

Linux can also support more in terms of peripheral devices. There are Linux thin clients that work with scanners, fingerprint readers and even Bluetooth bar code scanners.

They also support unified communications tools, such as Microsoft Skype for Business. The app can even come built into the thin client and integrated with the user's virtual desktop.

Thinner than Windows

Linux thin clients used to lack a Windows license and usually included lower performance hardware than other thin clients. Over time, Linux thin clients have proven to have lower operational costs than Windows thin clients because they require fewer security updates.

When IT uses Windows for thin clients in addition to virtual desktops it means it must have two copies of Windows to patch for each user. A good Linux build on a thin client requires less updating than a Windows thin client to maintain the same security posture, as well as fewer meaningless operations tasks and less downtime for thin client updates.

Centralized management

Just because Linux thin clients require fewer updates and configuration changes doesn't mean they don't require any. As a result, IT should invest in centralized management, which is a critical factor in the success of any thin client rollout.

The beauty of Linux thin clients is that IT can apply the same operating system and management tools to existing PCs.

With centralized management, IT can ensure the consistent configuration of the whole population of endpoints. As IT pros evaluate thin clients, they should always treat the test thin clients the same way they would the production devices.

They should also use the management console for all of their thin client configuration and updates. IT pros should also make sure the management console can work across all of their sites and thin clients. The benefit of a central management console is that it allows IT to set a policy once and apply it across as many thin clients as it wants.

PC conversions

Converting existing PCs to thin clients has been a standard part of rolling out desktop virtualization for years and can be a source of pain. IT often converts the PCs by removing applications and locking down the existing Windows OS. IT pros manage these converted PCs separately from the dedicated thin clients, if they manage them at all.

The beauty of Linux thin clients is that IT can apply the same operating system and management tools to existing PCs. Some Linux thin client vendors let IT install Linux on existing hardware either on top of the existing operating system or on a bootable USB key. Because the operating system on these converted PCs is the same as the new Linux thin clients, IT can manage them all with the same tools.

A four-year-old PC IT converts to a Linux thin client still has four-year-old hardware. The performance and reliability of a converted old PC will not be as good as a modern, high-performance Linux thin client.

This was last published in October 2018

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