Dec 31 2009

The Return of Thin Clients

The latest crop of lean, mean computing machines offers ways to improve security, simplify management and reduce TCO.

Thin clients? Really?

Athough these slimmed down, all-in-one systems first came on the scene nearly two decades ago, they never gained much traction with users.

But information technology organizations, including those in the government, have begun giving them a second look because of the security and cost benefits.

“It’s a lot easier to manage 10 servers connected to 2,000 clients than to manage 2,000 standalone PCs. And it’s easier to do virus protection on 10 servers than trying to virus-protect 2,000 PCs,” says Jeff McNaught, vice president of marketing and customer support for Wyse Technology.

Today’s thin clients provide more alternatives than the traditional thin-client computing model — and that’s boosting interest, says IDC analyst Bob O’Donnell. Virtualization programs, which can partition servers into multiple virtual machines, work well in thin-computing environments because they can give users a full PC desktop experience. Additionally, IT departments can deploy blade servers in their data centers to power computing tasks.

The Latest

Manufacturers also have made advances in thin clients. The systems are meatier, with more powerful processors and RAM than earlier systems. Plus, some clients can go mobile. Neoware has created thin-client notebook PCs that for all intents and purposes are like any typical notebooks except that they have no hard drives. Users access applications and data from their organizations’ servers via Wi-Fi or other network connections.

The chief benefit of the thin client, security-wise at least, has not changed over time. The lack of a hard drive makes protecting them from viruses and spyware easier, notes McNaught. And for that reason, he says, the Veterans Affairs Department uses thin clients in VA hospitals to safeguard patient data and comply with privacy regulations of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

Although thin clients typically are less expensive than PCs, the incremental savings come from easier and less costly maintenance, says Travis Brown, thin-client product manager at Hewlett–Packard. “You get the benefits of remote client management and the ability for the IT administrator to manage from the data center, rather than having to go to each individual user.” The result is reduced downtime and increased productivity.

In Practice

The traditional server-based, thin-client setup remains popular for IT organizations that have a relatively fixed application stack that users access repeatedly, Brown says. Users access apps and data over the network using access software, such as Citrix Presentation Server or Microsoft Terminal Services. In this environment, the access program can load-balance servers and support thousands of users, Brown says.

But for agencies with users who require Web browsing and graphics-intensive applications or that regularly deploy new applications, there are alternative thin-client approaches.

Neoware and Wyse offer streaming software that — when combined with client devices with speedier processors and more RAM — lets users do computing locally while data stores to the servers.

When users log in, the server delivers a computer image, including the operating system and apps, to the thin client over the network. The server acts like a virtual hard drive, Wyse’s McNaught says. IT administrators can create different images for different users or groups of users, says Baker Egerton, Neoware’s vice president of marketing communications.

Another option is virtualization. Virtualization software partitions the software into virtual machines (VMs), giving each user a “virtual computer” with full OS and app privileges.

“You get more of a PC experience and have local administrative rights to customize the VM,” says Jerry Chen, VMware’s enterprise desktop director. VMware works with thin clients from many makers, including ClearCube Technology, HP and Wyse.

A third alternative, recommended by ClearCube and HP, adds blade servers to the mix.

Users get the full power of PCs, but because the blades reside in the data center, there is an added layer of security coupled with the ease of management of thin clients, says Greg Witt, federal vice president for ClearCube.

ClearCube also sells a chassis, thin clients and software for troubleshooting and monitoring the health of the blades. HP offers a similar blade PC setup through its Consolidated Client Infrastructure program.

The blades, Witt says, let organizations use “thin clients in an industrial-strength way.”