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Choosing thin client vendors -- and making them stick

Thin client vendors are an important choice in your VDI environment, and you want to make sure yours will stick around.

Nothing lasts forever, as they say, so what do you do when a vendor ditches a product, goes out of business or changes its business focus?

This is an age-old problem in IT, where things change quickly, companies get acquired and sold off, and businesses cease production on products -- leaving customers saying "Hey, what do I do now?" A few examples have happened recently in the virtual desktop infrastructure space with Pano Logic closing its doors and Oracle ending its VDI and Sun Ray products. With the thin client market on the rise, it's hard to know which companies will last.

Desktop virtualization expert and trainer Alastair Cooke spoke with SearchVirtualDesktop about how VDI admins can pick up the pieces after losing a thin client product -- and most importantly, how they should choose thin client vendors in the first place.

How can VDI shops go about choosing a thin client vendor that's likely to stay in business?

Alastair Cooke: You need to think about how long the company has been in business, how large they've grown, and what their core focus is. Pano Logic [which went out of business in 2012] was a small company with some very cool ideas. That doesn't necessarily translate to a terminal that you'd want to buy. One of their pain points was that they didn't scale up for very large customers. A lot of smaller thin client vendors have commodity thin clients with their own management product. Some of them have been around for 10 years, and that suggests solidity.

If you look at some of the PC vendors who have thin clients, you can see that the devices are core to the business. Dell, with its acquisition of Wyse, is now a PC vendor with a thin client focus. Hewlett-Packard has gotten better at thin clients; they don't see them as just a tiny PC anymore, which is a nice thing. These companies are a pretty safe bet for buying large fleets of thin clients.

How should IT admins pitch thin clients to the business side of their organization?

Cooke: There is always a risk of people in management overriding decisions made by the technical people, or not accepting recommendations made by IT. The only defense that the technical people have is to build a coherent business case around the decision they want, rather than a lot of technical facts. You have to present it in a way that shows what's in it for the business. Present it as 'The user experience will be better,' if that's what the decision maker wants.

Look at whether the terminal is being used for what it was designed for.

Alastair Cooke,
freelance trainer, consultant and blogger

How much should cost factor into decision making about thin client vendors?

Cooke: We often see the triad of: Low-cost, easy to manage and feature-rich. Pick any two. In the end it depends on your use case. If you're a call center running an outbound calling campaign, then lowering cost is critical to success. If you're outfitting a hospital for clinical use, then the quality of the display is much more important than the cost. For everybody that has a large number of thin clients, manageability is really critical. You don't want to have to treat each thin client as a unique individual; you want them to be like cattle, not like pigs.

What can VDI shops do when a vendor ends a product or goes out of business?

Cooke: IT had no expectation that they would have to replace them, so it's a big upheaval. Usually when a thin client vendor goes out, somebody takes up a support contract, so you don't have to go out and replace things immediately.

Customers need to then look forward and say, 'What am I going to do to replace these? Does it make sense to go to a different vendor and buy new thin clients, or do I need to completely rip and replace because it's going to cost me too much to support two different platforms?' Supporting multiple terminals make things more complex because there's no cross-vendor management products.

As an example of this, Oracle ceased development of its Sun Ray clients. What should IT shops with Sun Ray thin clients do now?

Cooke: Hopefully nobody was surprised by that. The development of the Sun Ray platform seemed to have stopped even before Oracle bought Sun. I'm working with a customer now who has about 600 Sun Rays in their offices, and by all signs, they'll continue to work. But the customer needs to think: Is it a sensible time to rethink the thin client? We expect them to last for five to seven years, so we're not at the point where we've budgeted for replacing them.

Another consideration is graphically intense applications. Very old thin clients aren't necessarily going to cope with those applications. You need to look at the manageability, long-term supportability and feature set when you choose thin client vendors.

What are some reasons a thin client wouldn't be successful?

More on the thin client market

Getting to know zero client options

Thin clients reduce management headaches

Choosing and managing thin clients: A guide

Cooke: Look at whether the terminal is being used for what it was designed for. The intention for Sun Rays was not to be a VDI client; you had to bend them to the function. Some customers used a device that was not for its intended use but was very cheap. That is a danger, and I think we'll see another phase of that come around.

I think the low-cost Android devices are going to go through a phase where people use them for thin clients but they're not really good for it. That's the next place where we might see clients and startups turn up and then possibly go by the by. Or, they could be hugely successful. Android is a nice, cheap operating system to put on a device, and it's really lightweight. That's the kind of thing where you take a huge risk if it's not really core to the market.

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