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How to select the best Windows Virtual Desktop thin client

While thin clients aren't the most feature-rich devices, they offer a secure endpoint for virtual desktop users. Learn how to evaluate different options for Windows Virtual Desktop.

As interest in Windows Virtual Desktop grows, organizations should spend more time considering the endpoints that users rely on to access their virtual desktops.

Windows Virtual Desktop (WVD) is based on Microsoft Azure, and it provides virtualized multi-user Windows 10 desktops to end users. Organizations can subscribe to WVD directly from Microsoft, but approved virtual desktop providers such as Citrix and VMware offer additional services, including administrative interfaces and application delivery.

Thin clients' popularity in the enterprise

Even before WVD came to the forefront of the desktop virtualization market, thin clients were popular with many organizations for traditional remote desktop environments. This was due to thin client's ease of use, strong security and low cost.

Whether those thin client devices were based on Windows Embedded, Linux or a proprietary OS, it was incredibly simple to physically provision small thin client devices and maintain them via a centralized management platform. Further, users had no affinity to their devices because there was no personal data on them.

The same thin client benefits can help WVD environments today. The COVID-19 pandemic caused a massive number of workers to move their worksite from traditional offices to remote locations. Organizations sent these workers home with various types of devices, including laptops and desktops, but thin clients are typically the most cost-effective option.

Comparing different client devices

Evaluating Windows Virtual Desktop thin clients

Five thin client vendors dominate the market for user access to WVD: IGEL, NComputing, Stratodesk, Dell Wyse and HP.

The Linux-based devices from IGEL, NComputing and Stratodesk are generally more secure than Windows- and macOS-based endpoints. Microsoft provides a Linux SDK for WVD, which these three vendors use to build their own remote desktop client. There are also Windows 10 IoT Enterprise-based thin clients available from vendors such as Dell Wyse and HP. Windows 10 IoT Enterprise is basically a scaled-down version of Windows 10; its predecessor was Windows Embedded. 

IGEL

IGEL has taken a novel approach to thin clients. Rather than forcing their customers into a full hardware purchase, IGEL's offering focuses on software. Administrators can centrally deploy this software via system management tools or the UD pocket. It is a USB device that plugs into an existing endpoint and enables the user to dual boot to the Linux-based thin client that runs on its own IGEL OS. Thus, an employee who moved from the corporate office to the home office can just plug a UD pocket into a PC and get to work.

Even before WVD came to the forefront of the desktop virtualization market, thin clients were popular with many organizations for traditional remote desktop environments.

IGEL also offers more traditional thin-client devices, such as the UD line ranging from the economy-level UD2 to the feature-rich UD7.

Stratodesk

The approach that Stratodesk takes is also a bit different compared to the rest of the market. Similar to IGEL, Stratodesk has a custom OS that runs on endpoint devices via a USB device, and the Stratodesk NoTouch OS can work for numerous virtualization platforms, including WVD, Citrix and VMware. Unlike IGEL's offerings, Stratodesk focuses on the management aspect of thin clients with the USB add-on. It can function on full devices or even other thin client vendor's devices.

NComputing

This vendor offers a wide range of thin client devices that organizations can choose from, but the vendor has devices that are built to work with certain virtualization platforms, including Windows Virtual Desktop and Citrix Virtual Apps and Desktops.

The RX420 thin client model and one other model in NComputing's RX line, the RX-RDP+ support WVD. The RX-RDP model doesn't offer WVD support. The RX line is built on Raspberry Pi and the two models that support WVD also support 5GHz Wi-Fi.

Dell Wyse

The thin clients that Dell Wyse offers range from the most stripped down to the feature-rich models. The Wyse 5070 thin client is probably an organization's best option to support WVD via Windows 10 IoT Enterprise, but organizations could also opt for the 5470 -- both the all-in-one and mobile thin client versions. In addition, Dell Wyse is rumored to have plans to include a Remote Desktop client in a future version of its ThinOS.

HP

With HP's thin clients, organizations can also choose from a range of zero clients, mobile clients and desktop thin clients. The zero clients that fall within the t310 line come with no local OS, but the mobile and desktop clients come with the Windows 10 IoT Enterprise OS and a license to go with it. The mobile thin clients include the mt46, the mt45, the mt21 and the mt22, and the full desktop thin clients include the t740 and the t430 models.

How to access WVD

WVD is accessible via either a web client or the native remote desktop client software. Organizations can opt for a HTML5 web client, but the functionality for this method not as robust. Additionally, this method requires the browser to be Microsoft Edge, Internet Explorer, Apple Safari, Mozilla Firefox or Google Chrome. It's more common for organizations to use the remote desktop client on a Windows desktop, or via the Microsoft Store for Android, MacOS, iOS and Linux devices. 

How to choose the best thin client for Windows Virtual Desktop

As part of reviewing business and technical criteria for WVD endpoints, there are many considerations that may determine whether thin client devices are the optimal device choice. If they are, organizations must pick which vendor and model are best. In many cases, manageability and security are critical factors, so thin clients are optimal.

One important consideration for thin client devices is an organization's goals for the future. If an organization has deployed WVD as a short-term option with plans to adopt the more robust Citrix Virtual Apps and Desktops or VMware Horizon platform in the future, the same thin client may not be capable of supporting Citrix HDX or VMware PCoIP Blast. Similarly, existing thin client devices that access Citrix or VMware today may not be capable of accessing WVD.

In addition, thin client devices have limited functionality as a standalone device. Exactly how much functionality depends on the OS and specific device features and specs, such as memory, RAM, type of display support and ports for USB or other external devices. Even though some thin client devices physically look like laptops, they are not capable of full laptop functionality without internet access.

Another factor for organizations to consider is that the end-user device affects WVD licensing, so organizations must consider this when evaluating the cost and benefits of each model. Microsoft-partnered devices are advantageous from a licensing cost perspective. However, organizations can achieve this same licensing benefit with high-level Microsoft 365 subscriptions.

The best thin client depends upon each organization's business requirements. For example, the base operating system -- whether Windows 10 IoT Enterprise or Linux -- for the thin client may be a determining factor. One final decision-making factor is that thin client vendors are consistently releasing new models, so it's worth factoring in future feature sets and the direction of each vendor when choosing a thin client.

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