Thin clients have come a long way, baby

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.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor on

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.

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