Thin Clients vs Zero Clients for VDI and Beyond

Friday, January 23rd, 2015 | Technology Management, Virtual Desktop Infrastructure | David Schomburg

Thin clients and zero clients are a departure from a traditional desktop/laptop and most of the security and maintenance intensive issues that come along with that package. Both offer IT the kind of centralized control they have been dreaming about for years but there are important distinctions when choosing which client will serve the needs of your firm in terms of performance, security and ease of use.

What is the difference?

Thin clients all have some sort of locked-down OS and can just be an old repurposed PC since the processing power is not needed on the client end. It is difficult to get a virus on a thin client depending on what OS is installed but they can still present an opportunity for attack. Because they still have an OS there is more flexibility but that also means a lot more configuration at setup.

Zero client have no OS – no hard drive, no local storage. The zero client is dedicated hardware for decoding which means that it is more efficient than using a software client and standard CPU. Zero clients are solid state and boot up in seconds. They are immune to viruses and require almost no maintenance. Zero clients have low power consumption because there is no CPU, graphics card etc.

Why choose Thin Client?

Thin clients remain popular despite some disadvantages over zero clients for a couple of reasons. The first is flexibility with connection type. Thin clients offer more flexibility when it comes to connectivity and can change as the firm’s VDI connection requirements evolve. (For more information on VDI connection brokers read this.) Thin clients are, of course, centrally managed for efficient maintenance like applying patches and updates. While updates are more involved and required more often than zero clients it is still far less frequent and intricate than a traditional PC.

Why Choose Zero Client?

Zero clients couldn’t require any less involvement from IT. As we mentioned there is almost no maintenance and applications are all provisioned from the server. The instant boot up and excellent graphics performance keep end users happy. Zero clients are also not constantly changing so over time hardware consistency is much easier to achieve and maintain. Depending on firm requirements zero client firmware images are smaller compared with the space that a thin client OS can take up.

Check list of considerations:

A good example of the performance difference between thin and zero clients is this explanation of the USB Plug and Play experience. In this case, the zero client provides the best user experience for VDI by avoiding the three plug-and-play cycles required by a PC or thin client that would frustrate the user with delays. Below are a few, but certainly not all, of the considerations that need to be made when choosing thin vs. zero clients.

  • Connection Broker requirements/changes over time. Citrix vs VMware
  • Budget for zero client vs thin client hardware purchases
  • Application requirements (including legacy software or databases)
  • Data storage and image size expectations
  • Logistical/location based challenges
  • Mobility requirements
  • Cultural expectations of PC experience

It always helps to formalize the evaluation process by making a true assessment of your firm’s performance, cultural and budgetary requirements. Hopefully this provides a good launching point because choosing the right client is an important aspect of building a successful VDI experience for both end users and IT managers alike.

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