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Taking stock of zero-client hardware options for VDI

Using zero-client hardware to run virtual desktops makes management and user access easier. Check out some of the product options available.

Zero clients offer an alternative to thin clients for hosting virtual desktops, and the market for zero-client hardware is growing.

A zero client is an appliance used to access a remote desktop; it has little configuration and no capability to run additional software. I love zero clients. Having an appliance on every desk that is nothing more than a portal into the user's data center-based desktop allows awesome levels of flexibility without a lot of management complexity. With this kind of VDI hardware, administrators don't need to know or care what the zero client runs and users don't even think about it being there -- they simply access their desktop.

A full range of different zero-client products are out there. The list here is nowhere near an exhaustive list, just an illustration of a few options to get you started.

HP T410 all-in-one

Hewlett-Packard Co.'s T410 aims to be the workhorse zero client in a VMware View deployment. It's a great choice for every desktop where you would have otherwise put the standard fleet desktop. The client is built into the 18-inch LED backlit display (that's why it's called all-in-one).

The party trick for the T410 is Power over Ethernet (PoE): It can get power over the same cable that provides network connectivity -- meaning only one cable to each desk. This can be a huge benefit for deployments in old buildings, high-density offices and temporary locations. To keep within the power supply limits of PoE, the screen is fairly small and HD (1366 x 768) is not full HD. If you need to attach high-power peripherals to the T410, then you'll need the wall wart power pack rather than PoE.

HP and Teradici Corp. worked together to optimize the ARM CPU and DSP for PCoIP, so this zero-client hardware is very responsive since it uses a low-power CPU. I've had one in my lab and was amazed that the low-cost and low-power device is so nice to use. I eventually replaced it with a dual-screen device because, at the low-power target, there is no possibility of a second monitor.

Dell Wyse Xenith

Wyse Technology Inc. was the first Windows client vendor I worked with, attaching their terminals to the first releases of what is now Remote Desktop Services. Since it's been on the market for so long, Wyse (now owned by Dell) has a great handle on how to make zero clients easy to deploy and manage.

More on zero client hardware

Sifting through thin client options

Video: Checking out Wyse VDI hardware

Do thin and zero clients live up to the hype?

The Xenith and Xenith 2 zero clients are for Citrix XenDesktop or XenApp, and they provide the usual benefits of fast start-up and near invisibility to the user. Rather unusually, the Xenith line has a wireless LAN built in (usually, zero-client hardware gets its configuration from the network, and wireless requires setup before it will connect). If your Xenith zero client will live on a wireless network, it requires initial setup on a wired network. The network-based setup is simply a couple of text files on a network server and some DHCP option values pointing to those files.

The remaining feature set for Xenith covers most use cases, including two screens at up to 1920 x 1200 resolution, the usual array of USB capabilities, sound and Gigabit Ethernet ports.

PCoIP hardware

There are a lot of PCoIP zero clients in the market. They all have the same Teradici-designed silicon, so they have very similar specifications and capabilities; many of these zero-client hardware options even have the same case and look identical.

One big differentiator is the generation of the Tera chip. Tera1 is the original chip, and Tera2 was released in 2012 with twice the performance of the Tera1. For instance, the 10ZiG V1200 zero client includes Tera2, so it has standard support for two monitors at up to 1600 x 2560 resolution and an optional configuration with quad-screen support using two Tera2 chips in a single zero client.

Other models of PCoIP zero clients can be found integrated into LCD monitors or as small desktop boxes.  Be aware of very compact terminals, because the Tera chipset does generate a little heat and the smallest devices may need to be kept in cool air to avoid overheating. All Tera-based terminals can be managed and configured using a virtual appliance provided by Teradici, which allows group-based management and simpler updating of zero clients.

The VDI software that you select for your deployment will affect the pool of zero-client hardware you can choose from, because different products are optimized for different remote display protocols. Aim to have a single type of VDI hardware, and deploy the same model to everyone. Since you will have quite a few endpoints, spend some time looking at the capabilities for bulk management so you can manage the zero clients by policy rather than individual configuration.

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