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Repurposing old PCs as thin clients with Windows-based software

The latest PC-to-thin client conversion tools make repurposing old PCs for desktop virtualization a viable option. Part one of this two-part series covers Windows-based tools.

A few years ago, I wrote an article on BrianMadden.com called "Converting PCs into thin clients – a rundown of a suddenly crowded niche," providing an overview of the software available at the time. Enough has changed since then to revisit the topic -- this time in a two-part series.


Companies repurposing their old PCs as thin clients are met with a few challenges, most notably the fact that, in the end, they're still managing the same number of physical desktops as they did before investing in desktop virtualization.

Because of this, the idea of repurposing PCs as thin clients was dismissed in recent years. But over time, some products emerged that make re-purposing PCs for desktop virtualization a viable option.

We can break down the types of PC-to-thin client conversion tools into two groups: Windows-based conversion products and thin client OS-based products. This week, we'll take a look at the Windows-based tools, and part two of this article will cover the thin client OS-based products. 

Windows-based thin client software

Two of the products in this space, ThinLaunch Thin Desktop and triCerat triShell Kiosk Edition are very similar. Both convert existing desktops to thin clients -- or kiosks -- by limiting the applications and interfaces that a user can access. In many cases, organizations simply remove access to anything other than a remote desktop client, so that as soon as a user logs in, that's all they see.

Thin Desktop's configuration happens in the registry, so managing the app can be done using any tool that you already have to modify a workstations registry. (You can learn more by taking a look at the Thin Desktop User Guide).

The triShell Kiosk Edition (TKE) is configured via a small config file generator. The file can then be placed on machines with TKE installed via logon scripts, or the file can simply reside in a network location where the client is configured to look. (For more information on the administration of TKE check out the Quick Start Guide).

Both companies have features that also replace the Internet Explorer UI with a locked down (but configurable) version, effectively making the device into a public kiosk.

The other product in this space is Microsoft Windows Thin PC, which is based on Windows Embedded Standard. Before Microsoft made Thin PC generally available in June, it wasn't available to anyone besides OEMs for installation on PCs.

Thin PC is based on Windows 7 and provides the same Aero interface you'd expect from a Windows 7 device. To keep it "thin," several features are removed from the OS, such as search and the ability to add features. This results in a 2.8 GB footprint, as opposed to the 6.8 GB footprint of a full Windows 7 Ultimate installation.

On the surface, Thin PC looks like the answer to many an admin's prayers. Most applications work, admins have access to the same write filters that we're used to seeing in other embedded Windows versions and it's free if the device you're going to install it on already has Software Assurance (SA). There are two problems that I have with Thin PC, though.

First, if you don't have SA, you can't use Thin PC. You can purchase SA for a specific device in the form of a Virtual Desktop Access (VDA) license, which costs $100 per device, per year. On top of that, you also need to own a "Professional" edition of Windows for the device, which will set you back another $250 (retail, of course). That means that if you don't already have SA, you could be into each device $350 just to run Windows as a thin client.

The other problem is that the End User License Agreement effectively prevents you from running any "productivity applications" on the OS, including streamed apps. Users are essentially only permitted to run Internet Explorer, Media Player, terminal emulation and remote desktop-like clients. Some organizations may not have a problem with this, but others prefer to at least have the option to run some apps locally.

If you're in the unfortunate position of not having SA for your devices and you need to have some sort of productivity app installed locally, Thin PC is not an option. For more in-depth rundown on Thin PC, check out my article from April -- "My love/hate relationship with Windows Thin PC (WinTPC)."

The bottom line for Windows-based solutions is that if you have SA and zero need to run any productivity applications locally, Thin PC might be for you. If you have a broader set of requirements, there are tools that can help you.

If you're not married to Windows on the desktop, tune in next week for part two, where I’ll run down the non-Windows solutions for converting your existing PCs into thin clients.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Gabe Knuth is an independent industry analyst and blogger, known throughout the world as "the other guy" at BrianMadden.com. He has been in the application delivery space for over 12 years and has seen the industry evolve from the one-trick pony of terminal services to the application and desktop virtualization of today. Gabe's focus tends to lean more toward practical, real-world technology in the industry, essentially boiling off the hype and reducing solutions to their usefulness in today's corporate environments.

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Nice article Gabe. Another product to consider is ThinShell which is included at no extra cost with Quest vWorkspace. It does exactly the same thing - turns a PC into a thin client, but at no extra cost!

www.quest.com/vworkspace
http://communities.quest.com/community/vworkspace/blog/2010/08/20/product-release-vworkspace-thinshell-20
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Hello Gabe, thank you for the info, I think its very useful. There are a couple of Desktop VIrtualization technologies that we are considering, one of them, Kaviza, which has actually been bought by Citrix and the other one is ThinPoint from NetLeverage, you could find more information about it here: www.netleverage.com what do you think about these other solutions? Could these technologies bring an advantage in terms of investment outlay? and How reliable do you think they are?.
Thanks!
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Very useful detail information, Gabe. Thanks. I saw many school districts admins are struggling to manage outdated computers (but still working well if you manage). So they are considering VDI but not easy due to high cost of deploying. One smart idea we found from Santa Clara Unified School Districts implemented was, (a) reformat all windows pc with ThinPC or stripped Windows (b) install Chrome or Firefox browser to lock as kiosk mode (c) adopt Web-VDI solution (ZeroDesktop's Web Desktop private cloud edition) to emulate Windows-like desktop to avoid any training time and cost to learn new environment (d) implemented InstallFree or RemoteApp through ZeroDesktop's webtop (called Startforce). They save huge cost related VDI license. Refer the article about this: https://bit.ly/qNomKJ
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Your cost analyisis for the right to use Windows Thin product is misleading. If you do not have SA or VDA you do not have the rights to virtualize the desktop in the first place. Therefore, the Thin Client is included in a properly licensed VDI environment by definition.
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