This content is part of the Essential Guide: Comprehensive guide to using cheap thin clients for VDI

Raspberry Pi thin client devices are finally viable for the enterprise

Citrix partnered with Raspberry Pi to create minimal-cost thin clients optimized for the HDX remote display protocol, providing a new way to lower the price of XenApp and XenDesktop deployments.

Since the release of the original Raspberry Pi thin client in 2012, VDI administrators began wondering when they would be able to use it in the enterprise. Now Citrix is making it happen.

Raspberry Pi devices are cheap -- a Raspberry Pi 3, the current model, sells for $40 -- and powerful, and can run Linux operating systems (OSes). The advent of H.264-based remote display protocols that could take advantage of the onboard video decoder in Raspberry Pi thin clients made their use in corporate settings even more realistic. Still, nobody grabbed the bull by the horns to make a complete offering. IT could put an OS on Raspberry Pi devices, install client software and deploy them to the field, but they were underpowered, unmanaged devices easily outperformed by other thin clients.

What we really needed to make the Raspberry Pi into a viable thin client was improved client software and management capabilities. That's where ThinLinX and its TLXOS thin client OS came into the picture. TLXOS, which is based on Raspbian, the default OS for Raspberry Pi, provides an image for the devices that includes client and management software. This combination has been around for a few years, but this is the year that Citrix took note.

At the Synergy 2016 conference in May 2016, Citrix revealed that it's been working on a Raspberry Pi 3-based thin client device that uses Citrix HDX system-on-chip technology to deliver XenApp and XenDesktop virtual desktops and applications to end users. These thin clients -- referred to as Citrix HDX Ready Pi -- can help organizations save on hardware costs to support task workers. HDX Ready Pi devices automatically connect to the company's StoreFront server when they connect to the network, providing users with the same central access to corporate resources as on a thin client that cost several times more.

Citrix-optimized Raspberry Pi thin client devices

Citrix did the right thing by not making and distributing these thin clients itself.

Citrix partnered with hardware manufacturers ViewSonic and Micro Center, which will now sell HDX-optimized Raspberry Pi 3 thin client devices running TLXOS. Companies can purchase these devices for $75 to $90, depending on volume. They include the Raspberry Pi device itself, flash storage, a case, power supply and the TLXOS management software license. Considering the cost of those components, the price seems pretty fair. Plus, Citrix said IT should be able to deploy these devices in minutes.

Citrix worked with ThinLinX to ensure that its Receiver client software performs as well as it can in the first release, but there are some constraints. For instance, Receiver only supports a single monitor. It's not impossible to support two in the future, but with limited resources and ports available on the Raspberry Pi device, it's no sure thing. We'll never see four displays, though, at least on this current hardware version. Companies using Raspberry Pi thin client devices will no doubt run into USB redirection challenges as well, given the lack of resources to handle tasks such as client-side rendering.

Citrix did the right thing by not making and distributing these thin clients itself. It is not a hardware company, and it doesn't need to be getting into thin client management. ViewSonic and Micro Center make good launch partners because neither of them has previously been a direct competitor of thin client vendors such as Dell, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and IGEL.

The profit margin on the hardware side likely is not huge, so ThinLinX is the company with the most to gain from Citrix's improved support of Raspberry Pi devices. TLXOS is an OS and management infrastructure that can run on any x86 microprocessor, so if a company starts using Raspberry Pi thin clients, it could replace the OS on your other endpoints with TLXOS and manage everything from the same interface. IT can have a mixed environment of repurposed PCs, cheap Intel NUC Mini PCs, old x86 thin clients from other manufacturers and Raspberry Pi devices all under one management umbrella.

We can reasonably assume that the typical use cases for these new Citrix HDX SoC devices are probably relegated to task workers for the time being, so the largest question that remains is scalability. Citrix hasn't released any scalability numbers, only saying that it has not yet tested the overall platform beyond hundreds of users, but that everything performed fine in those tests. I don't see many large organizations abandoning their existing thin clients for a taste of Raspberry Pi, so it's possible most deployments will be small and medium-sized businesses where scalability isn't a major concern.

Raspberry Pi has become a major player in the education thin client computing market, but with improved management and Citrix on its side, these low-cost endpoints might be ready to dig into the enterprise as well.

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