Do you really want to manage a fleet of expensive PCs that require ongoing maintenance and troubleshooting? A growing number of businesses are saying no. Instead, they're exploring an alternative to desktops and laptops that can reduce associated hassles and expense.
Thin clients give users the familiar experience of working at their own computer, but the stripped down machines are limited to accessing applications on a server.
As small as a hardcover book, thin clients resemble smart routers. They're loaded with ports for peripherals and powered by lightweight processors and apps (or none at all). The user's monitor and keyboard plug in to the little black box, but they reach and control a remote computer on a server.
Though the market for thin clients is tiny compared to the market for PCs, it has been growing more quickly in the past few years. Some 7.4 million units will sell in 2014, up from 3.7 million in 2010, according to IDC analysts.
A thin client generally houses a small CPU whose software interacts with a remote desktop. A "zero client," such as the one from Pano Logic, fools the virtual machine in a data centre into thinking that the device is local, thereby eliminating the need for a local processor or software.
According to Pano Logic, if a device isn't a zero client if it has a processor, an OS and drivers. On the other hand, market leader Wyse sells zero clients with software that it says can help them adapt to future changes in network protocols and security.
Replacing 'thick" clients such as desktop PCs can demand a huge initial effort from an IT department. Once set up, however, thin clients and virtual desktops can reduce operating expenses by 40 percent, according to Wyse.
Tech support pros spend most of their time managing workstations, but with thin clients, a company can focus on running servers or can outsource any heavy lifting to a cloud service. Free of the need to upgrade machines one by one, IT pros can focus on expansion at the server level.
Thin clients are solid state, so they have no spinning disks to repair, or to protect in hostile environments. If they fail, no user data is lost, because it lives on the server. Thin clients reduce downtime per user by 79 percent, according to Gartner research.
Since each workstation accesses the same centralised applications, a worker can log in at any terminal rather than being tied to a specific desk. Some thin clients also offer smartphone companion tools for reaching remote virtual desktops.
Among the money-saving environmental benefits is much reduced energy use: A typical thin client may demand 3 watts as against the 14 watts that even an efficient PC requires. Energy costs for a zero client can be 88 percent less than those for a desktop PC, according to Pano Logic. Without desktops heating up its office, a business's summer cooling costs may drop, too.
If a company commits to these barebones machines, which are supposed to last for up to a decade, it will also also less electronic waste to deal with later.
The major flaw associated with zero clients and thin clients is that a single point of failure on the central system can put all users out of luck. It's up to the system administrator to devise a reliable server redundancy plan.
Another issue is that some employees may prefer the control of customizing and saving their data to a local PC rather than working with remote data and tools. And a thin client setup is less than ideal for working with bandwidth-intensive video, voice and graphics.
To decide whether thin clients make sense for your workplace, compare the potential costs of hardware and software licences and centralised maintenance against what you spend on your current infrastructure.