Spend Trend: Thin Clients

By Kenneth Hess (Send Email)
Posted Apr 1, 2009


Ken Hess
Most of us see the data center as the only place to tighten the budgetary belt a few notches. Technology savings can be found lurking outside the server room, however. Check out how much you'd save by using non-traditional, thin-client desktops. I must confess I've never liked thin clients, dumb terminals or similar ilk — that is until a few years ago when I setup Linux as a Windows Terminal Server client. I wrote an article about my experience with that project and became a thin-client convert.

Cover Your Assets: The new spin in spend trends is thin — thin clients. And they are far from the "dumb" terminals of yesteryear.

Thin-client machines come in all shapes, sizes and prices. Prices range from $49 up to $1,000 or more with the average around $250. Some sport a minimal embedded operating system, while others include a pared-down version of a standard desktop operating system. Depending on the model selected, thin-client operating system options range from very lightweight embedded Linux or proprietary operating systems based on Linux to Windows CE or Windows XP Embedded. Thin-client hardware manufacturers offer three-year hardware warranties at little or no additional charge. Some companies offer extended warranties beyond those first three years. Ordinarily, I advise against purchasing extended warranties, but thin clients are different: When a unit fails, it needs a full replacement, which justifies the extended warranty price. In three years, traditional desktop computers are at or near their end of life, while thin clients are still in their prime.

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All thin clients are not alike. They differ, as pointed out previously, in operating system, connection protocols, price, flexibility and upgradability. Thin client hardware comes in four categories: Basic, Browser-based, Flexible and Linux. Refer to Listing 1 for attributes of each thin client type.

Listing 1: Thin Client Types

  • Basic - RDP, ICA, XDMCP
  • Browser-Based - RDP, ICA, Browser
  • Flexible - RDP, ICA, Terminal, Browser, Multimedia
  • Linux - Embedded or Mini OS

Which thin-client type you choose depends largely on the applications you access, how you want to connect to a virtual desktop and how rich you want your user's experience with those applications to be. For example, if your application requires sound, then you'd choose a unit and operating system combination that's multimedia capable. If your application uses Internet Explorer-only hooks, you likely want a model that uses a version of Windows.

If you're like most people, you don't know everything there is to know about thin-client hardware. Don't rely on a sales pitch to tell you which one you need — order a demo unit and try it out for yourself in your environment with your applications. Listing 2 notes the largest and best-known, thin-client manufacturers.

Listing 2: Thin Client Manufacturers

Thin clients are the most frugal of desktop computer choices — their low cost, low maintenance, low noise and low power consumption put them high on the save money list. Whether you use hosted desktops, local virtualized desktops, web-based desktops or terminal services, thin clients are the answer to your desktop angst.

Do you use thin clients in your office? Are you considering them to replace your current desktop computers? Use the comments section, and let's discuss it.

Ken Hess is a freelance writer who writes on a variety of open source topics including Linux, databases, and virtualization. You may reach him through his web site at http://www.kenhess.com.

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