This content is part of the Essential Guide: Guide to choosing and managing VDI thin clients

VDI thin client options: How to choose the best thin clients

When you're assessing VDI thin client options, consider management style, deployment options and display protocol support. You want the best thin clients to fit your environment.

If you're deploying desktop virtualization, you may be considering VDI thin client options.

Choosing a thin client is one of the most important choices you'll make when starting a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) project. There are lots of different VDI thin client options from different vendors, and each offers its own approach. You need to decide what kind of management options you want, how you'll deploy the clients and what other features you need. Plus, you can't forget about zero clients.

To find the best thin clients for your deployment, consider these factors:

Central management

First, decide how you want to manage your clients. If you don't want to individually or locally manage them, try VDI thin client options that let you set a policy and make the thin clients automatically comply.

There are thin clients that make it easy to set up automatic management: You just place a few files on a server and use network boot to tell the thin clients how to find them. If you want every thin client at one location to behave the same, this type of centralized management is great.

Other thin client options allow you to group clients together and assign a common configuration to the group. This management easily allows you to have clients with differing or unique configurations but still group them together.

I'm a big fan of thin clients with the same configuration, which makes it easier to apply one profile automatically to all of them. But I also like to be able to support exceptions. For instance, you may have one or two terminals at a site with dual screens, while the other two dozen have only a single screen. If you want room for customization like this, make sure your centralized management tool allows for that without too much extra configuration.

Ease of deployment

Sometimes, the best thin clients are those that you can deploy with the least amount of work. That's especially true if you have non-IT staff in charge of thin client deployment.

If you're running virtual desktops at remote branches that don't have trained IT staff, look at VDI thin client options that branch staff can deploy easily on their own. If a terminal breaks or a new staff member needs a desktop, for example, you want branch staff to be able to just take a spare thin client out of the cupboard, plug it in and go.

Think of it this way: Deploying thin clients with non-IT staff should be easy enough that my mother-in-law can do it. Plus, this speed of deployment and use of non-IT staff can bring huge savings for the business.

Display protocol support

The cheapest VDI thin client options have very limited protocol support, so if you need better support, that quickly rules them out.

Some vendors, however, use the same hardware platform and apply different firmware to get different feature sets, including protocols. This capability is extremely useful in an enterprise environment that may need to support more than one protocol. However, these more flexible thin clients usually cost more and have more complicated management tools.

Don't forget about zero clients

The best thin clients for your VDI project may be none at all.

More on VDI thin clients:

Choosing PCs to repurpose as thin clients: To reuse or not to reuse?

Weighing the pros and cons of thin clients vs. thick clients for VDI

Thin client device market splinters on virtual desktops

Dell and HP churn out VDI hardware as thin client war heats up

Thin client technology FAQ

Modern thin clients are really just small, non-expandable PCs, but there are also zero clients. Zero clients have a limited feature set, run firmware rather than an operating system and usually target a single VDI product and display protocol. They are also often highly optimized for their role as terminals and usually have very limited local functionality. That means no local Web browser or Voice over IP (VoIP) and no VPN or wireless.

I love zero clients because they're all the same and are interchangeable, so any user can use any terminal. You could have a high-resolution zero client on every desk in the office, and every desk location would be able to access any user's desktop, meaning no waiting for IT when you're moving around.

Additional VDI thin client features

This is where we hit a slippery slope with VDI thin client options. You deploy thin clients so you don't have to manage a local OS and so all your data is in the data center, right? But too much added functionality can make a client more inefficient. For instance, USB or serial device redirection seem pretty harmless, but what about redirecting a local Web browser or a VoIP softphone?

As soon as you add local functionality to thin clients, you end up with an OS that needs constant patching and antivirus updates. A good management product can help you build and distribute new images with updates, but you need to do this every couple of weeks and see whether your tool can use one base build for all terminals. (Having to do a second image build for the dual screen terminals will get old pretty fast.)

If you add a lot of local functions to your thin clients, ask yourself if that's VDI done right. Maybe you just need a well-managed local desktop instead of thin clients.

As you consider VDI thin client options, spend some time working out what you need and emphasize ease of management. Thin clients tend to last a long time, so operational costs far exceed purchase costs. Choosing the best thin clients for your needs will make a big difference to your desktop virtualization project.

Alastair Cooke
is a freelance trainer, consultant and blogger specializing in server and desktop virtualization. Known in Australia and New Zealand for the APAC virtualization podcast and regional community events, Cooke was awarded VMware’s vExpert status for his 2010 efforts. Follow him on Twitter @DemitasseNZ.

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