What is a Thin Client, and Why Should You Care?

(Originally published in Small Business Computing, August 27, 2009)

Technology insiders tend to throw around technical terms and business jargon, assuming people outside the industry understand what it all means. By its nature, technology vocabulary is often confusing and complicated, and insiders often add to the confusion by over-complicating things. To help add a sense of clarity to the confusion, each month, Laurie McCabe, a partner at Hurwitz & Associates (a business consulting firm), will pick a technology term, explain what it means in plain English, and then discuss why it may be important to you. This month, Laurie takes a look at thin clients.

What Is a Thin Client?

A thin client is a computing device that’s connected to a network. Unlike a typical PC or “fat client,” that has the memory, storage and computing power to run applications and perform computing tasks on its own, a thin client functions as a virtual desktop, using the computing power residing on networked servers.

They typically have just enough processing power, information and parts to access and use the computing resources of a server. The thin client can’t run applications or store data or documents on its own; it functions as an interface to convey your keystrokes and connect to the applications, documents, data and storage on networked servers, where the actual work is done.

Most thin clients run Web browsers and/or remote desktop software, such as Microsoft Terminal Services or Citrix XenApp, so you see the familiar browser or desktop environment that you’re used to.

With thin clients, you run the desktop environment on the server, and remotely display the desktop screens on the thin clients. You need to manage this on the server side with what’s called a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) — software that creates the desktop images, stores them on servers and sends them over the network to the thin clients. Both desktop and mobile thin clients are available from a wide range of manufacturers. Some such as Wyse, specialize in thin clients, while others, such as Dell and HP provide thin clients as part of a larger client device portfolio.

Why Should You Care?

Because they lack hard drives, CD-ROM drives, fans and other moving parts, thin clients are smaller, cheaper and simpler for manufacturers to build than traditional PCs or notebooks—and cheaper for you to buy.

Thin clients decrease client maintenance costs and hassles. With fewer moving parts, and very little software running on the device, fewer things can go wrong with a thin client, so they’re easier to maintain and fix. If a thin client does fail, you can easily swap in a replacement without losing productivity because employees don’t store any data on their client device.

Since everything is managed, stored and secured centrally, from the data center, thin clients eliminate the issues of installing, updating and patching applications, backing up files, or scanning for viruses on individual computers. Because employees see and have access only to what they need to do their job, thin clients are easier for non-technical people to use.

Centralized management also provides security benefits. You’re not storing any data or information on the thin client, so you don’t need to worry about exposing confidential data if a thin client gets lost or stolen. In industries such as healthcare, where adherence to privacy regulations is of paramount importance, thin clients can give medical personnel access to patient records without concerns about confidential information being downloaded. Thin clients also use less energy than standard desktops and notebooks.

Because they run cooler, they can help reduce air conditioning requirements as well.

What to Consider

Companies have traditionally turned to thin clients to give employees access to certain applications and functions, such as in a call center or retail setting via remote desktop software. Thin clients are also a good fit for remote offices, where it can be difficult and time consuming to get PCs fixed. However, as cloud computing becomes more prevalent, the use of thin clients has the potential to expand significantly, as they can also provide a gateway to an almost limitless number of Web-based applications.

However, thin clients aren’t right for all situations. Thin clients must be connected to the network at all times. Performance for graphically intensive applications can be slow, since people access them over the network instead of on their own device. People may also balk at giving up desktop applications and control over their workspace. And, companies need to also factor backend infrastructure and remote desktop licensing costs into the equation to determine whether thin clients are the right fit for their needs.

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