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IT pros look at Windows Thin PC with enthusiasm, pessimism

Windows Thin PC gives IT pros a way to turn old laptops into locked-down thin clients for remote applications. Sounds great, but seasoned admins have heard this promise before.

IT's old guard -- those who still consider themselves Terminal Services administrators -- are rightfully jaded about new remote desktop application technologies after years of unfulfilled promises and goals never quite achieved.

Remember any of these?

  • 1999 will be The Year of Terminal Services!
  • Switch to thin clients and extend desktop refresh to 20 years, or more!
  • Soon, every application will run in a session!
  • VDI is the answer and the answer is VDI!

IT pros working with remote applications quietly recognize the power of such technologies, yet haven't seen the world recognize it with them. They are used to being let down.

It is exactly that combination of technological excitement with the guarded pessimism of yet another let-down that comes to mind when we peek through Microsoft's new Windows Thin PC (WinTPC).

Thin brilliance
Windows Thin PC is exactly what the name says it is: A solution that converts a PC into a thin client.

Our pessimism has nothing to do with WinTPC's underlying technology or the use cases. WinTPC represents a brilliant repackaging of the product suite generally referred to as Windows Embedded. What's different with WinTPC is the decoupling of the Windows Embedded OS from client hardware.

With WinTPC, you install a thin version of Windows onto whatever commodity hardware you've got lying around, so you aren't locked into Windows Embedded's original equipment manufacturer (OEM) thin client hardware.

Freeing WinTPC from the clutches of OEMs automatically introduces some powerful use cases for extending remote applications to endpoints. The most obvious of these is the potential for greatly extending the life of all that old desktop hardware you've got lying around.

To that end, consider the minimum requirements for WinTPC: A client with a 1 GHz or faster 32-bit (x86) processor, 1 GB RAM, 4 GB of available hard disk space and a DirectX 9 graphics device with WDDM v1.0 or later driver. Microsoft suggests installing WinTPC on hardware with "at least 16 GB of available disk space" and "for optimal performance … at least 15 percent free space."

Those minimum requirements are so minimal that it's almost laughable. We can poke through the storage closets and find six- to 10-year-old hardware that might fit WinTPC's minimum requirements.

WinTPC goes a step further for environments that need a premium user experience, adding BitLocker, BitLocker To Go, and AppLocker as security solutions and the RemoteFX protocol add-on for heavy graphics applications. It also supports Forefront Endpoint Protection. Even more exciting is the knowledge that WinTPC instances can be managed through Microsoft's Windows Embedded Device Manager, a tool that most IT professionals either adore or have never heard of.

Even Microsoft's licensing of WinTPC is surprisingly liberal. Software Assurance (SA) customers can install WinTPC on covered devices.Organizations with Virtual Desktop Access licenses get similar access, as do customers with subscriptions to Microsoft's relatively-new Windows Intune.

But two other design decisions have us stunned at WinTPC's potential. For one, it retains the ability to run applications locally. While Microsoft's licensing verbiage states that "you cannot run any productivity applications, such as Microsoft Office or similar applications," it goes on to assert that other application types may run on WinTPC instances. Those include:

  • Security
  • Management
  • Terminal emulation
  • Remote Desktop and similar technologies
  • Web browser
  • Media player
  • Instant messaging client
  • Document viewers
  • .NET Framework and Java Virtual Machine

Support for these application types eliminates many of the reasons why IT shops couldn't embrace traditional thin clients in the past. Management and security tools can be local, without the special considerations Windows Embedded sometimes required. Remote application's biggest problem apps -- Web browsers, media players and the like -- don't need to be remote, nor do they need the same special consideration. We see this support as a potential game-changer for delivering apps using Remote Desktop Services and Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI).

Microsoft's other design decision that titillates the jaded Terminal Server Administrator within us is that WinTPC is supported on laptops and comes with a plethora of drivers (and driver support). It is essentially Windows.

Couple that with support of Microsoft DirectAccess' always-on VPN and one can imagine the fundamental redesign of how laptops are provisioned, used, managed and dealt with in the case of theft or loss.

A laptop as a thin client? We must be dreaming. But at least it's a good dream.

It is brilliant technologically, but operationally? We're still pessimistic. Will the industry actually embrace this?

Because there have been so many unfulfilled product promises and statements in the past, it almost pains us to write down words like “thin brilliance” and “fundamental redesign.” We've been here before, and we've been burned by feature limitations, unfathomable license restrictions and those one or two itchy-but-important-things-that-never-get-resolved.

Even more depressing is pondering the conversations with CIOs and other business leaders who might not grasp the power this application delivery approach portends. So, once again we'll wait and see and hope that this time we'll get to realize the remote application dream weknow has existed for over a decade.

Read more from Greg Shields

Greg Shields
, MCSE, is an independent author and consultant based in Denver with many years of IT architecture and enterprise administration experience. He is an IT trainer and speaker on such IT topics as Microsoft administration, systems management and monitoring, and virtualization. His recent book Windows Server 2008: What's New/What's Changed is available from Sapien Press.

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