Choosing PCs to repurpose as thin clients: To reuse or not to reuse?

Should you repurpose existing PCs or use dedicated thin clients for your VDI project? That is the question. Start by considering the benefits of reusing PCs and what it will cost.

Implementing virtual desktop infrastructure is a big expense, but one way to defer some of the costs is to repurpose existing PCs as thin clients.

Converting PCs to thin clients decreases the initial cost of virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), but it can increase the ongoing expenses of your VDI project. That's because a repurposed thin client PC requires more maintenance than a dedicated thin or zero client. Deciding whether to repurpose PCs depends on how old they are and your organization's appetite for ongoing costs.

Transforming a PC into a thin client isn't just about putting a shortcut on the desktop. It's a major effort to create a good PC client install image to go on these PCs, especially if you're planning to lock them down like a dedicated thin client. You also need to license an antivirus product and manage updates on the client device, as well as inside the virtual desktop.

So, before you repurpose PCs for your VDI project, consider how old they are, how many you'll convert and what benefits you'll gain.

Why repurpose PCs as thin clients?

For a PC-only environment, you may need one full-time staff member for every hundred or so PCs. With thin clients, however, the local operating system is a tiny file that's automatically downloaded on demand by the thin client, and any user can use any thin client. That means staff members don't have to run around reinstalling apps or moving computers and can make better use of their time. You could have one or two staff members for every thousand thin clients.

More on thin clients:

Repurposing old PCs as thin clients with Windows-based software

Replacing home PCs with virtualized thin clients

Tools for converting PCs to thin clients

Another merit of thin clients is that they last a long time. Thin clients are usually replaced on a five to seven year cycle, compared to the three year cycle for PCs.

Which PCs should you repurpose?

If your PCs are over three years old, you probably shouldn't repurpose them as thin clients. Old PCs have high failure rates and usually don't have great graphics performance. If your PCs are less than a year old, however, they will probably make good clients, because they most likely include plenty of RAM, multi-core CPUs and will be more reliable. To start your VDI project with old or recent PCs, you need to evaluate the costs and choose a cutoff age for old PCs you want to repurpose.

Another factor to consider is the screen. If an old PC doesn't have a flat screen, you might want to think about buying new flat screens. The screen is what your users look at all the time, and it's often how they judge the quality of the computing environment. If you have flat screens already and your budget allows, consider larger ones: They make users happy, and happy users mean a successful VDI project.

So, should you repurpose all of your PCs or go with all dedicated thin clients? Keep in mind that having a small portion of repurposed PCs alongside a lot of dedicated thin clients may be more complicated than having all dedicated clients. That's because your IT staff will have to understand two kinds of clients and your users will notice the difference, possibly making the hot-desking strategy more tense as staff compete for the best client.

If your organization is comfortable with ongoing expenses or has difficulty with the initial capital expenditure of thin clients, it may make sense to convert some recent PCs to clients for your VDI project.

Alastair Cooke
is a freelance trainer, consultant and blogger specializing in server and desktop virtualization. Known in Australia and New Zealand for the APAC virtualization podcast and regional community events, Cooke was awarded VMware’s vExpert status for his 2010 efforts. Follow him on Twitter @DemitasseNZ.

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