A thin client is a stripped-down, simplified computer that connects to a remote server (cloud, edge, or on-premises) to run a virtual desktop, using the servers´ resources. These devices are heavily used by government agencies, business employees, IT companies, healthcare, manufacturing, retail, and public areas such as libraries.
The benefits of thin clients include reduced hardware and software cost, improved security (since nothing is stored in thin clients), centralized management, and system integrity, as the OS, files, settings, and software cannot be changed.
How do thin clients work?
To understand how thin clients work, three major core areas need to be considered: hardware, network, and software.
A key characteristic of thin clients is their minimal hardware requirements. Most of the hardware resources that a thin client uses are not inside the device but in the server. This server can be installed on-premises, be a close edge-data center (good for operations that require low latency), or be provided by a cloud vendor.
A thin client draws its memory, processors, and storage from the server it’s connected to. However, to operate it still requires:
- Low-energy processors
- Flash storage
- USB and other ports
- Audio hardware (built-in speaker or headphone jack)
- Network adapter
- Peripherals (e.g., keyboard and mouse, display screen, webcams, and speakers)
Connectivity is essential for thin clients to operate, since they run on network-connected servers.
To connect to the architecture — the main server hosting multiple thin clients as endpoints — thin clients use the following protocols:
- Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP): RDP is a protocol that allows users to connect to a remote computer and interact with its applications and data as if they were sitting in front of it. RDP is a widely supported protocol and is available on most thin clients.
- Independent Computing Architecture (ICA): ICA is a protocol that is similar to RDP, but it is designed specifically for thin clients. ICA is often used by businesses that have a large number of thin clients, as it is more efficient than RDP.
Other protocols, such as Virtual Network Computing (VNC) protocol and the Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP), can also be used to connect a thin client to a server but are not as popular as RDP and ICA.
Additionally, top vendors will offer support and special apps for thin client users to connect to servers. For example, Citrix Virtual Apps, VMware Horizon, Amazon Web Services (AWS), and Microsoft Azure all provide thin client network connectivity applications. These vendors usually use the RDP or ICA protocols.
While thin clients can run a simplified, read-only OS — usually from external storage devices such as USB or flash memory cards — the rise of cloud computing, virtual machines (VMs), and virtualization have established virtual desktops as the most popular way to run an OS on a thin client.
However, a thin client still needs some basic software to connect to a network and its server host and to run virtual desktops. This software is known as a thin client operating system (TCOS).
A TCOS is a lightweight operating system that is typically a basic version of a traditional desktop operating system, such as Windows, Mac, or Linux.
TCOS software includes:
- Graphical user interface (GUI): Allows users to interact with the thin client and the applications that are running.
- Network stack: Enables thin clients to connect to networks and servers.
- Virtual desktop manager: Connects and runs the virtual desktops.
- Security software: Features that protect data that is being stored and transmitted on the thin client.
Virtual desktops (the virtual image of an OS running on a VM in the host server) provide the OS, the apps and software, advanced security, and all the hardware requirements for thin clients to operate smoothly and safely.
Benefits of thin clients
From cost and space savings to scalability, security, and sustainability, there are many benefits to thin clients.
- Cost: Thin clients are much cheaper than traditional computers as they use much less hardware. They also incur fewer IT and maintenance costs.
- Space: While kiosk computers or PCs take up space, thin clients are small and minimalist. They can be deployed in constrained locations.
- Durability and hostile environments: Public spaces, healthcare, manufacturing, retail, and factories all require durable devices that withstand prolonged heavy use and can endure rough environments. Thin clients have fewer damageable parts and thus require less maintenance, making them optimal for these types of businesses.
- Scalable: Companies that need to scale their operations can do so rapidly with thin clients, especially under virtualized architectures.
- Centralized management: IT departments can manage thousands of thin client devices with centralized dashboards, full visualization, updates, and security.
- Security and privacy: Thin client devices rarely store any information, as the OS, apps, configuration, and files are stored in host servers. This makes them highly secure and private.
- Sustainability and power: The large majority of the processing and computing processes that make thin clients run are sourced from servers. This makes them energy efficient and optimal for reducing energy costs and aligning with carbon emission policies.
Potential drawbacks of thin clients
Despite the many benefits that thin clients provide, they still have some drawbacks, including network limitations, IT requirements, and reduced performance.
- Limited to networks: Like all virtualization technology, thin clients depend on network performance and connectivity. If networks are not properly set up and configured — or if they experience latency or downtime — they can take thin clients down with them.
- Developers: Thin clients are not suitable for companies that need to provide digital resources to advanced developers and creators. Users can’t make changes to the OS, save files, test applications, or run a wide range of other tasks that require system flexibility.
- Requires advanced IT: Companies that want to deploy thin clients must have an advanced in-house IT team to set up and manage servers, VMs, and virtual desktops and secure all endpoints. These technical requirements and costs may be an obstacle for some companies.
- Performance: Maximizing performance for virtual desktops and thin clients can be tricky. If not done correctly, thin clients may not perform as planned.
Thin client use cases
There are several common use case sectors and scenarios ideal for thin client architecture deployment, such as hybrid workplaces, healthcare, retail, manufacturing, and kiosks.
Hybrid work companies
Thin clients can be useful for companies that want to centralize their IT management and provide their employees with the means to access virtual desktops, use thin clients to cut down costs, increase control and security, and ensure compliance and privacy.
Using thin clients, organizations can scale, provide equipment resistant to heavy use, reduce maintenance, and build flexible hybrid work environments.
From patient check-ins to nurse stations, doctors’ offices, clinic rooms, and telemedicine, healthcare is one of the biggest users of thin clients. Thin clients provide health professionals with the digital resources they need even as they move from one sector to the other.
The centralization of information also allows for instant updates, a single source of truth, and centralized management, which is vital for healthcare.
Thin clients can also help healthcare providers conform to strong compliance demands set by laws such as HIPAA.
Retail, factories, and manufacturing
Retail, factories, and manufacturing environments can be hostile to technology. The rugged characteristics of thin clients serve these sectors well. Additionally, using edge-cloud infrastructure, thin clients can reduce latency and streamline operations.
Thin clients are also used for point of sale (POS) systems. They can process payments and track inventory and are employed by retail stores, restaurants, and other businesses.
Thin clients are often used for kiosks. This means that the thin client is used to provide a specific service, such as checking out library books or ordering food. Kiosks are typically used in public areas, such as libraries, airports, and retail stores.
The education sector leverages the benefits of thin clients, which are durable and can be used over and over without worrying about changes to software or costly maintenance. In this sector, they provide access to educational resources, online courses, and libraries, as well as student, faculty, administrative, and learning management systems.
Thin clients vs. thick clients
Confusion often arises between thin clients and thick clients, also known as fat clients. The table below explains the main characteristics of each.
|Thin client||Thick client|
|Hardware||Low-powered processor, limited storage, small display.||High-powered processor, large storage, large display.|
|OS||Lightweight thin client operating system.||Full-featured operating system.|
|Apps||Runs applications that are stored on a central server.||Runs applications that are stored locally.|
|Security||More secure due to centralized data storage.||Less secure. Data stored locally.|
|Cost||Cost-effective, inexpensive.||More expensive.|
|Use cases||Kiosks, POS, remote access, desktop virtualization.||General-purpose computing.|
|Performance||Depends on server and network.||Runs processes locally. May perform better than thin clients.|
|Network dependency||Depends on connectivity to the server and its OS.||Does not need connectivity. Built-in OS, can operate independently.|
|User changes||End user cannot make changes to the OS, save files, or change settings.||Users can save files, change settings and OS, and make permanent modifications.|
|Connects to virtualized environment||Yes.||Yes.|
Thin client top vendors
There are numerous vendors, including top cloud providers, that offer excellent thin client products and services.
HP Thin Clients
HP is a leading manufacturer of thin clients. Their thin clients are known for their reliability and performance. They are popular among businesses with hybrid work policies and are optimized for simplified deployment and centralized management of complex environments. HP thin clients models include the t740, Elite t655, and the t640.
Dell is another leader in the thin client market. Their products are secure, reliable, and cost-effective. The Wyse thin client is used by enterprises that want to accelerate cloud strategies.
NComputing is a manufacturer of thin clients that are designed for businesses with limited budgets. Their thin clients are very affordable and easy to deploy. The most popular product is the RX300. The RX300 is cloud-ready, optimized for NComputing’s vSpace Pro desktop virtualizations and Microsoft Remote Desktop Services.
IGEL thin client products are more expensive than those offered by NComputing but preferred by companies that require high-security standards. Their thin client products offer a wide range of security features, such as remote management and data encryption.
Lenovo thin clients are popular among IT, offices, healthcare, factory floors, public libraries, and retail and manufacturing. The company offers several products, including the M Series ThinkCentre and the ThinkCentre M75n IoT Thin Client Desktop. They are powerful, ultra-light and thin, easy to set up, power efficient and military-grade tested for durability and reliability.
Thin clients leverage different technology ranging from hardware, software, network, VMs, cloud, edge, and virtual desktops to provide several benefits for large, medium, and small operations.
Thin clients reduce costs, increase access and the availability of resources, and enhance privacy and security. They are ideal for sectors that require intense use and can provide low latency for sectors such as retail and manufacturing.
Here are some of the best server virtualization software to help you establish a robust virtualization environment for your thin clients.