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What mobile thin clients offer and why to consider them

The mobile thin client market might not be huge, but these portable devices can be a real boost for VDI shops in improving security and simplifying management.

Mobile thin clients may be a somewhat niche option as endpoints for VDI deployments, but they can deliver many benefits in terms of security and simplified management.

A thin client is a stripped-down endpoint that lacks the bells and whistles of a traditional PC or laptop. Some examples include the Raspberry Pi, Google Chromebook and Dell Wyse. In fact, thin clients are the most common device VDI shops use as endpoints at 38%, according to Login VSI and Frame's "State of the EUC 2018" report released in May.

Mobile thin clients take things a step further because they only provide users with access to their virtual desktops and nothing else -- on the go. They are ideal in situations where many users within an organization work outside the corporate office.

How mobile thin clients work

IT can turn traditional laptops into mobile thin clients by replacing the hard disk with a solid-state drive. This move should boost battery life for the device. In addition, IT pros can use an embedded OS -- either Windows or Linux -- to manage the OS in a central management console along with the rest of the deployment. It also prevents users from downloading any of their own apps locally.

To allow users to connect to their virtual desktops through an internet connection, IT must provide them with wireless LAN access, a mobile data connection and a web browser. Without a web browser, users cannot access public Wi-Fi networks, which often require them to open a browser and accept terms of use.

Advantages and drawbacks of mobile thin clients

Any organization that works with highly sensitive data or must meet strict compliance guidelines should consider using mobile thin clients, because they can allow users to securely access resources from any location. In addition, because no data lives on the mobile thin clients themselves, IT only has to worry about securing the devices and the network. IT can also deliver a fully locked-down OS to mobile thin clients and manage it from a central location.

A lost or stolen mobile thin client can pose a risk to an organization because it does serve as a pathway into the corporate network. As a result, IT pros must use a remote management product so they can shut a device down or wipe it remotely.

Mobile thin clients are beneficial because users can access their desktops as long as they have an internet connection. They also have more power than simply delivering virtual desktops to tablets or other mobile devices, so resource-intensive corporate apps generally function better.

On the negative side, mobile thin clients strip users of flexibility and control over what they have on their desktops. In addition, performance is completely dependent on the network.

A few options on the market

If IT isn't up for converting existing laptops into mobile thin clients, there are several choices on the market to buy these devices from companies such as HP Inc. and Dell. Here are a few examples:

Any organization that works with highly sensitive data or must meet strict compliance guidelines should consider using mobile thin clients.

HP mt21 Mobile Thin Client comes with a 128 GB flash memory drive, an optional fingerprint reader and several ports for users to connect to projectors, charge phones and more. It works with Windows 10 IoT Enterprise and the HP ThinPro file-locking system. The base model costs $449.

HP mt20 Mobile Thin Client is slightly cheaper at $399 and also runs Windows IoT Enterprise as well as HP ThinPro OS, which is Linux-based. It comes with Windows Unified Write Filter, a security feature that prevents unauthorized updates from running on the device. It also integrates with some management features, including HP Device Management and HP Velocity.

Dell Latitude 3460 Mobile Thin Client uses Windows Embedded Standard 7 as its OS, which gives users the ability to work with many Windows applications and peripheral devices. It also has an integrated HD graphics engine. IT can manage it either on-premises with Wyse Device Manager or in the cloud with Wyse Cloud Client Manager. Dell's line of thin and zero clients start at $329.

Beyond laptops

Mobile thin clients can also take the form of HDMI dongles or USB drives. Users simply plug them into a device with the compatible port.

This type of mobile thin client allows users to work with older hardware, because the user is really accessing the virtual desktop or app through the tiny thin client device, not the laptop, PC or monitor he is working on.

IGEL's UD Pocket, a Linux-based thumb drive, is an example of such a mobile thin client. Users just plug the UD Pocket into a USB port and enter a key that IT provides, and they can access their virtual desktops and apps.

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What could make mobile thin clients more viable in the enterprise?
When the C suite finally gets what CSO's have been saying for many years now: the biggest threat to the organization comes from the modern, over-empowered employee client/server computing model.

Giving employees more power over devices, apps & data than they need to do their jobs is like giving your kids the keys to your car, working copies of your credit card, and lots of unsupervised time to hang out in very shady places without your knowledge.

Just watch the average office worker connecting to public wifi in cafes, flipping usb thumb drives & devices between trusted & untrusted computers, browsing to websites with bad security reputations, installing coupon apps with embedded adware, opening links in obviously phishing emails, sharing everything funny or cute that they get, letting their kids use their home office computers, and a thousand other security no-no's that prove that they are both uninformed & indifferent to computer security threats to their companies & themselves.

The result of the fat client/server model is a hacker's play land that presents a treasure trove of endpoint vulnerabilities into corporate networks that are routinely exploited without breaking a sweat. Hence, the total breakdown of secured, private information and the relative ease of profiting from data theft, ransomware, and identity theft.

The solution is to return to the mainframe dumb terminal model with OS, apps and data residing in the secure data center and end users simply interacting remotely with the thinnest of thin clients. Most of the time, employees don't really need more than this to enter, edit and view the information that they need to handle documents, spreadsheets, and business transactions. You know, actual business transactions...

Like any other smart device used in an enterprise ecosystem, even mobile thin clients will require control and management. MDM solutions work the same way with these devices as they do with other smartphones or tablets.