Thin clients have come a long way, baby

Thin clients have come a long way, baby

Summary: We're so far beyond Remote Desktop Protocol now in thin computing environments that it's astounding. Are you sharing, virtualizing, or streaming? Any way it goes, you're probably saving money and power.

TOPICS: Hardware

I've had a few conversations lately with the folks from NComputing and had a chance to speak earlier this week with representatives from Wyse.  Although Wyse has a really comprehensive portfolio, both companies are at the forefront of thin computing and have powerful solutions for education and  many other vertical markets. I'm looking towards a shootout between the major players in thin computing, all of whom bring different approaches and technologies to the industry. For now, though, I'll just outline the major types of thin computing to provide a basis for comparison and discussion for anyone looking to thin solutions for the coming school year.

Thin computing, or as Wyse calls it more generally, cloud client computing, can be divided into three general categories:

  • Desktop sharing
  • Desktop streaming
  • Desktop virtualization

Each has its own advantages and disadvantages and most appropriate use cases.  When the local school district rolled out 3 thin client labs 3 years ago, desktop streaming was very immature, desktop virtualization was very expensive, and desktop sharing was cheap and easy.  Guess which one we went with?  In the form of Remote Desktop Services (at the time, these were called Terminal Services), we gave users access to their own sessions on shared Windows 2003 servers and things went pretty well.

Next: Read more about remote desktop, desktop streaming, and VDI »

Remote Desktop Services is the basis for Microsoft's new Multipoint Server and remains a popular choice for cheap, straightforward access to productivity applications and the Internet.  In their most basic implementations, VNC and NX are also desktop sharing products and most iterations of the Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP) fall into this category as well. While it works well, especially in smaller organizations, desktop sharing tends to scale very poorly, both from a networking perspective and a server hardware perspective.
Desktop streaming is a newer approach, although it could be argued that LTSP implementations like Edubuntu actually fall into the category of desktop streaming.  It can take a couple of different forms itself.  The most common has a disk image on a file server that gets sent down to a diskless client using PXE to boot from this image rather than a hard drive. Dell explains the technology nicely on their website:

Each time you initiate a working session, [desktop streaming] delivers a pristine, standard desktop to your local computer...IT administrators need only update the image on the server to make it available to ODDS clients. Other benefits include:

  • Improved virus resistance — You work with a clean, standard desktop image each time you initiate a new session. Your desktop is discarded — along with potential virus infections — when you end your session.
  • Streamlined management — IT administrators need only replace, patch or upgrade the desktop image on the master source disk.
  • Fewer unique desktop images to manage — Only the IT administrator can change the image.
  • Seamless migration — Only the master image needs to be updated to make Microsoft® Windows® 7 available to your client environment.
  • Longer image life cycles — A flexible computing node typically has 1.5 times the lifetime of a standard desktop.

It should be noted that software can manage user customizations of their environment if that's appropriate to the business rules of an organization.
Desktop streaming can also include PCoIP or PC over Ethernet technologies, in which a physical computer (potentially a virtual machine, but more often a full PC (or even a workstation) resides in a data center for management while users have an extraordinarily desktop-like experience via a zero client that simply handles I/O for the remote PC.
Finally, desktop and application virtualization can provide easily managed, high-fidelity solutions, but many analysts recommend that their use be limited to organizations with substantial datacenter investments already in place.  Virtual desktops (e.g., an instance of Windows 7 or IBM's Smart Work Client) can be delivered to a thin client from the cloud as well.  In this scenario, every user has their own virtual PC running on a server or cluster that may host hundreds or thousands of such PCs.  While open source software solutions exist, the hardware costs alone can be substantial to achieve acceptable performance and scalability. Proprietary software solutions from the likes of Citrix, VMWare, and Microsoft are highly effective, but can be expensive in and of themselves.
So what's an IT decision-maker to do?  As usual, define requirements and then stay tuned here for ongoing coverage of this exploding segment in the industry that can save money, time, and energy if implemented correctly.

Topic: Hardware

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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  • I could deal with a thin client hybrid

    I do think the cloud has a ways to go especially in terms of consumer protection but I can't deny it's value. However, I have been disconnected in the past and a few times a year I lose power.
    I would like to see more hybrid solutions where you can continue to work on your thin client and sync up the next time you get a data connection.

    Also I live in the U.S.A. where broad band is a privilege you pay for, not a right or a utility you can demand.
    • RE: Thin clients have come a long way, baby

      @mr1972 "I would like to see more hybrid solutions where you can continue to work on your thin client and sync up the next time you get a data connection."

      I agree, and probably the #1 issue with the "cloud" for mobile users. And I don't think broadband is an entitlement. There is way too much entitlement thinking going on now, and not enough resources to pay for them.
      • RE: Thin clients have come a long way, baby

        @ItsTheBottomLine True but the model for delivering connectivity in thin client based world with mostly cloud services can easily disenfranchise a lot of people. We would need something like a "stamp" payment system where you pay for what you use. Like the postal system. Otherwise some people couldn't shop, pay bills, or work on their spreadsheets. If you could buy either time or data in small affordable increments you could support the infra structure while providing reasonable broadband service to pretty much everyone. Right now you either have broad band or you don't and it can get expensive especially for people who only need it once in a while.
  • What Would Be Really Cool

    I'd like to be able to chose from different images at the client side, say good ol' MS DOS or Windows 7. We still have some DOS edugames that are useful, but they don't work very well in an emulator and forget about trying to run them over a remote desktop. But I shudder to think about the heavy tolls on bandwidth and a server trying to serve up 25 images of Windows 7 at once.
    Adam S
  • RE: Thin clients have come a long way, baby

    Talk about cloud computing opportunity... when will we see net books that are simply wireless thin clients? I'd buy one so long as I can have access to my choice of servers (i.e. desktop image service providers). If a device/technology is locked into a specific service provider (like, say Google) then I would probably pass on that. Like the I-Phone = AT&T strangle hold. Ya know... I want to shop for the best device... I want to shop for the best service provider too! PS - Please provide robust USB port(s) for my flash drive, track ball, and other toys.
    • RE: Thin clients have come a long way, baby

      @jilindi@... On choice of more than one service providers, yes, I've got a hand full of stranded client type devices that out lived their "hard wired" service provider thanks to mergers and bankruptcies.
    • RE: Thin clients have come a long way, baby

      @jilindi@... <br><br>I haven't seen or looked for any in the netbook class but we have a thin client notebook that we bought a few years back for traveling employees to take with them and connect at the hotel for access. It worked pretty well. We haven't used it much in the last year because they mainly used it for internet and e-mail and they get that on their PDA phones now.
  • Ok, picture this...

    I could replace my family of 6's old laptops with used dual-core, 64-bit, 2 GHz CPUs, 4 GB RAM, 320 GB HDs, CD/DVD drives, batteries, chargers, screens, and keyboards ... complete workstations each ... for about $2400 total. They'll all get much better performance than before, but they'll also still be bound by the limits of their respective machines.


    For the same money, I build a single box with 8 GB RAM, dual quad-core CPUs, a 1TB RAID 10 array, blue-drive, wireless card, etc., configure it as an (X-) terminal server, ditch the wireless router, and turn their old laptops into mobile thin-clients.

    Now, each of them has the power of that (relative) beast at their disposal when they need it. Which isn't often enough for any one of them to interfere with those moments when one of the others needs that burst of performance.

    Tether their phones, and they can take all that with them wherever they go.

    Replace their laptops with Redflys for maximum effect.

    Now, scale that up for a business, say 50-500 PC users, looking to 'go pro'.

    Just wheel a turnkey box into their phone-closet, sell off all the now redundant stuff, convert the PCs to terminals, laugh all the way to the bank.

    We're going back to the old host/terminal paradigm. Microsoft, Google, et al know it, and are frantically trying to position themselves as that single, do it all box in the server-room, only they call it 'the cloud'.

    The only thing they're clouding is our view of the better solution.
  • RE: Thin clients have come a long way, baby

    We've been using thin clients in our business for going on 10 years now and love them. We generally only replace them when they're dead and they've averaged 8+ years each to date.<br><br>The biggest thing the users lose when going to true thin clients such as a Wyse terminal is their disc drive but as discs are used less and less as time goes by, that isn't a big issue anymore and it was never a big problem for us. When it comes up, IT loads the disc on the server for them.<br><br>Thin clients are a lot easier to manage than PCs. We have 60+ thin clients in use at four locations ranging all across the US and thanks to their nature, we rarely have to visit the remote locations. If a thin client crashes, we overnight a new one and they're back up and running the next day.<br><br>The only PC at each of our locations except corporate are their UPS PCs and we have considered making them thin clients as well and likely will eventually.<br><br>As for outages, we don't operate across the internet. We use dedicated T1 services so outages are rare but because all of our servers are at corporate anyway, it wouldn't matter if they didn't lose their sessions when the data circuit goes down because they couldn't get much done without it regardless.<br><br>After supporting 100's of PCs in the past and my experience with thin clients in the last 10 years, I wouldn't want to do anything but Thin Clients.
  • RE: Thin clients have come a long way, baby

    "..., desktop sharing tends to scale very poorly, ...".

    This is wrong! We built a cluster based on NX which scales *massively* and at incredibly low cost. The footprint on the client is virtually nil. Some customers deploy PXE to launch a simple Linux kiosk image workstation straight off the network card. The result is a zero license cost solution that's equivalent to a Microsoft desktop and scales to enterprise level.

    Graeme Speak
  • Not far enough

    we have recently implemented a thin client solution (VDI) and I have to say I am not impressed at all, considering the cost are actually about the same as a PC to get into it, the performance is horrible, we moved our users from 2.8 single core PC's to the wyse thin clients connecting to a vmware server and its like you are using a 1 Ghz PC, not to mention out of the 100 I have had to deploy I have already had to replace 5 of the thin clients due to various issues mostly power related. From what I have seen over the last several years it is much better than it used to be, but its still not quite ready for prime time. Give it a couple more years and we might be able to talk a bit more, but for now... nope not at all impressed.
  • DELL's newest Thin client comes with Blu-Ray

    Hell yeah! With the price of Blu-Ray DVDs dropping, there no reason not to get one. You can get a player for you computer for $50 now. Thin clients, just hook them up to your new HD tv and attach the new monitor to the computer in the other room.

    Using a wireless keyboard and mouse to a computer hooked up to your TV is the new wave now. Not for playing games, but for recording/watching TV & movies.