Flirting with Change

Many organizations are falling head over heels for thin-client and zero-client computing. Is it a match for your environment?


Thin, uncomplicated, reliable and secure. Suitable for long-term relationship.

Sure, that could describe a personals ad on craigslist. But it is also a fairly accurate representation of thin-client computing. A recent Thin Client Vendor Landscape report, published by Info-Tech Research Group, predicts thin clients will continue to entice enterprises away from traditional desktops because of their security and cost benefits. Thin clients are less expensive, are more reliable and generally require less power than PCs.

“Going thin is about more than saving on electricity bills — the projected benefits go well beyond that. But cost is one benefit businesses are unlikely to ignore,” said Laura Hansen-Kohls, senior research analyst for Info-Tech Research Group.

Thin clients are the ideal partners for desktop virtualization solutions, in which the desktop environment, applications and data reside on a centralized server. A thin client has its own memory, processor and network connectivity but no hard drive — or any of the baggage that goes with it. IT is freed from the tasks of patching operating systems, installing and updating applications, and ensuring that data is protected on each and every desktop. And as they face the prospect of upgrading to Windows 7 and/or Windows 8, more organizations may embrace the thin-client alternative.

However, there is a fresh face in town that is attracting a lot of attention. So-called zero-client or ultra-thin-client solutions take thin-client computing to the next level. Which will win the hearts of desktop administrators?

A Lot of Experience

Thin clients have been around for a while. In fact, the thin-client computing concept grew out of the old mainframe environment, in which “dumb terminals” provided the interface to centralized applications. And “interface” pretty much describes a thin client’s function. In essence, a thin client accepts the user’s keystrokes and mouse movements and sends them to the application, then accepts the application’s video output and displays it for the user.

Thin clients began seeing renewed interest as relief for the high cost of PC management and support, but their mainframe legacy tarnished their reputation somewhat. Critics saw them as character-oriented devices unsuited to today’s graphics-intensive environment. It takes more processing power and bandwidth to process graphics, and more still to handle multimedia, offsetting some of the benefits of thin-client computing.

However, thin clients have continued to evolve along with the marketplace. The leading manufacturers of thin-client solutions offer an array of options suited to a variety of end-user and application requirements. Some support Windows and Linux operating systems as well as specialized “thin” OSs. The most powerful provide support for voice, video and rich media, multiple displays, wireless connectivity, and more. These solutions provide a robust end-user experience while enabling organizations to capitalize on desktop virtualization.

Low Maintenance

Of course, not every end-user needs those kinds of features. If the key is to minimize desktop acquisition and administration costs, it’s important to select the simplest device for each application. And with no memory, processor or operating system, the zero client is about as uncomplicated as it gets.

The zero client is essentially a connectivity device optimized for the desktop virtualization environment. Zero-client solutions include software that runs inside each user’s virtualized desktop and routes data to and from a zero-client device, which typically includes an Ethernet jack, a VGA plug, audio input and output connections and USB connectors for input devices. Direct connectivity between the zero client and the host software eliminates the need for network protocols that can increase network overhead and degrade performance.

Zero clients offer all of the benefits of thin clients, with a lower cost per unit. What’s more, zero clients consume much less power than their thin client and PC counterparts — some as little as three watts.

Neither thin clients nor zero clients are right for everyone. They’re not sufficient for power users who need to do a lot of local processing with applications, for example. But for many organizations seeking to control costs, improve security, reduce energy consumption and streamline desktop management, thin-client and zero-client computing is a match made in heaven.