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Choosing a thin client for remote desktop protocol access

There are plenty of suitable thin client options for RDP environments, but each device has unique characteristics that make it a strong or poor fit for a particular organization.

For years, Microsoft has equipped Windows with a native remote desktop client to access a virtual desktop environment or centralized server via a remote desktop protocol session.

However, the Windows Remote Desktop client is not the only option for organizations that want to use remote desktop services. Another popular option is an RDP-enabled thin client.

Because thin client vendors design their products for remote connectivity, they only require a network connection and peripheral devices such as keyboards and monitors to function. Thin client devices don't even have a local OS.

Most thin client devices are hardware-based, but there are software-based thin clients available as well. These software clients function similarly to hardware devices, but IT typically installs them on top of a device's local OS: either Windows, macOS or Linux. There are also software clients that can boot from a USB flash drive. Such clients run directly from the USB device and are independent of the local OS.

Benefits of using thin clients for RDP

There are numerous benefits to using hardware-based thin clients to access RDP sessions. Some of the benefits associated with this approach include the following:

  • reduced licensing costs due to the lack of local OS or apps on a hardware-based thin client;
  • simplified end-user support because users access centralized virtual resources via RDP;
  • reduced hardware costs because thin client devices have a lower price tag than the average laptop or desktop computer;
  • lower energy consumption from thin client devices compared to traditional computers;
  • zero hardware maintenance for IT because most thin client devices do not include any serviceable components -- if a device fails, IT replaces it; and
  • increased reliability because of the simplicity of thin client devices.

Challenges of using thin clients for RDP

There are also some significant disadvantages to hardware-based thin clients that IT must consider. Some of those disadvantages include the following:

  • only support for remote access sessions, so working offline is not possible;
  • potential to overload the session host if a thin client is connected to a slow network, which would hinder the UX;
  • lack of a local network connection would leave users unable to work; and
  • if a thin client device fails, IT must replace the entire device, which could lead to increased new hardware costs.
The first thing to look for in a thin client device is the ability to connect to an RDP session.

What to look for in a thin client for RDP

Despite their simplicity, thin client devices can vary widely in terms of their capabilities. It is important to consider the devices' features against the end users' needs when selecting a thin client for remote desktop protocol.

The first thing to look for in a thin client device is the ability to connect to an RDP session. While most thin client devices do support RDP, there are client devices that only support alternative protocols such as X11. A few examples of thin client vendors with models that support RDP are NComputing, 10ZiG, Leadtek and Parallels.

Another important consideration is monitor support. Any thin client device can connect to a monitor, but the supported display resolution can vary widely. Additionally, there are thin client devices that support the use of multiple monitors, but many of the options on the market do not.

Peripheral support is another important factor to consider. While it might be easy to assume that users will only need a keyboard, mouse and monitor, users who work remotely will also need to use a webcam and a microphone. Not all thin client devices will support these types of hardware, so IT admins and executives must ensure they consider these features before selecting a thin client device.

As an organization's purchase decision-makers evaluate the various thin client options, they must also consider how the devices align with their organization's security goals. If, for example, an organization is working to phase out passwords in favor of biometric authentication via Windows Hello, then the client devices will need to support any required biometric hardware.

It's also important to consider the IT team's ability to centrally manage any thin client devices. Even though thin clients are typically free of maintenance needs, IT admins will need a way to manage firmware updates for the devices. Similarly, an IT department may need a way to maintain a device inventory to keep track of which devices are in use, which have not connected for a period of time and any rogue devices that might show up on the network.

Finally, organizations have to establish a method to connect thin client devices to the network. Some thin clients only support Wi-Fi connectivity, while others only allow for wired connectivity. Some thin clients do support both, however.

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