Debunked! 5 myths of thin client computing

A 'terminal' hooked to a server sounds so last century, but HP chief technologist Tom Flynn says today's thin clients offer an attractive alternative

Thin client computing might seem like a relic of the past decade, eclipsed by a new wave of mobile devices. But Tom Flynn, chief technologist for thin computing at HP, begs to differ.

In this week's New Tech Forum, Flynn debunks five common myths about thin client computing today and touts the improved capabilities of modern thin client systems. If you haven't considered thin client computing recently, Flynn thinks it might be time for another look. -- Paul Venezia

5 misconceptions about thin clients

Contrary to popular belief, the thin client market is growing. With companies like HP selling more than 1 million thin client devices each year to hospitals, libraries, government agencies, and retail stores, you have to wonder why misconceptions linger about these devices.

Thin clients have been around for decades. In the past, the thin client itself had practically no computational power. Yet in recent years, thin clients have become fully functional terminals, nearly indistinguishable from a standard PC in terms of performance. And the growth of thin client solutions has exploded across companies with BYOD programs, enhanced security, and alternative computing options.

Although we're in an era of thin client innovation, concerns continue to surface regarding their reliability, power consumption, and ease-of-use. I still hear questions about their relevance for business. It's time to dispel the myths about their performance, total cost of ownership, and security once and for all.

1. Thin clients are the dinosaurs of client computing and suffer a slow adoption rate

Thin clients have evolved and adapted to the changing market landscape. According to IDC, more than 5 million thin client units are expected to ship in 2013.

Prior to the creation of VDI technology, thin clients were isolated to specific markets such as call centers and task workers. But over the past five years, VDI has accelerated the adoption of thin clients by changing the core problem: user experience. Based on the most advanced technology, thin client solutions can now access a device and server infrastructure that provides a seamless desktop experience. On the back end, storage vendors provide a dramatic increase in IOPS, while virtualization technologies from Microsoft, Citrix, and VMware provide the means to deliver the desktop to the client. These are enhanced protocols, including Microsoft RFX, Citrix HDX suite, and VMware PCoIP.

Creating all that power on the back end means you need a thin client that can decode the information. Many thin clients are sophisticated devices. Some have hardware encode and decode capabilities, such as H.264, so they don't rely entirely on the CPU. Furthermore, by working in conjunction with the remote protocols, thin clients are able to off-load much of the stress to a hardware-level decoder. Together, all those technologies deliver a modern desktop experience on the endpoint.

2. Mobile thin clients are impossible to secure

You can look at security in a few ways. First, there's no local data stored on a mobile thin client. For example, in an imaging protocol such as PCoIP or HDX 3D, pixels that change on the screen are transferred to the endpoint, but the actual data resides in the data center. All that is returned to the server are mouse and keyboard entries over a secure channel.

The secure channels are encrypted at either 128 or 256 bits. Furthermore, you can lock the endpoint image with a file or image-based write filter and lower the attack surface by simply closing all ports except the one you want to securely communicate with the server.

The other side of security is management. For example, HP arms its products with a complete device management tool called HP Device Manager, so agents can administer endpoints from anywhere on the network -- allowing simple updates for security patches or configuration changes.

3. Thin clients deliver a poor user experience

The days when thin clients were unable to deliver a rich user experience are over, especially on a modern network infrastructure. The modern protocols from Microsoft and Citrix provide multimedia redirection, so the user gets the best experience by locally rendering video content on the thin client while simultaneously reducing the load on the server.

Other approaches include hardware off-load to the server, shared graphic encoding (such as Nvidia Grid), or hardware-assisted protocol encoding (Teradici Apex Card). These approaches provide rich graphic detail without excessive consumption of server resources. The modern thin client can use off-load technology such as H.264 decoding for stunning multimedia clarity or hardware-based protocol decoding, as with the HP t310 Zero Client using Teradici Zero Client technology.

The modern thin client user today typically experiences no latency issues with graphics, streaming, or communications in a corporate office setting. However, modern workers are often mobile and expect to be able to access their environment anytime and anyplace -- which often includes accessing multiple networks that are not managed by their company. Packet loss and network latency can be an issue.

Software such as HP Velocity can address the both latency and packet loss. The point-to-point HP Velocity software analyzes the capacities of the network between the endpoint and provides the ideal protection scheme. When TCP/IP is the transport protocol, HP Velocity can provide up to a 700 percent performance improvement using dynamic buffer management. This is achieved by monitoring network conditions with a sensor and by dynamically selecting the optimal method from the suite of 10 provided by TCP.

4. Investment and maintenance is more expensive than with traditional PCs

The core benefit of thin clients is their ability to reduce total cost of ownership. The majority of the upfront cost is not the device itself, because thin clients are cheaper than traditional corporate PCs. With no moving parts such as hard disks or fans, thin clients generally have a lower failure rate, bringing the cost of maintenance and replacement down dramatically.

More to the point, thin clients do not host their applications, making management and patching updates easier. They are smaller, lighter, cheaper to ship, and easier to install, and they generate less packaging waste.

The principle cost borne by thin computing is the establishment of the data center infrastructure and the capital expense of servers, storage, networking, and virtualization software. While this is a significant cost, when considered with the lifecycle of the equipment, it's competitive with traditional PC upgrade cycle costs.

While evaluating total cost of ownership, you must keep in mind that the cost equation has changed in recent years. Businesses now allow end-users to bring tablets, phones, laptops, and other devices into the office -- and they are supporting these devices. It is no longer a comparison between thin clients with a VDI structure versus a standard desktop or laptop PC. We have seen a major shift in thin-client economics. Customers are now deciding to either rewrite their portfolio as Apple, Android, and/or HTML5 applications, or to provide their current Windows application portfolio to these devices through virtualization. Many customers are selecting the ROI made available from thin computing.

5. Thin clients are a huge power suck

The thin client device, screen, and networking can draw less than 13 watts of power. A child's nightlight draws more. Some models consume as little as 2.5 watts -- even in "awake" mode. Desktops typically have a 250-watt power supply with additional power requirements for a monitor.

Like any computing solution, there are pro and cons, but many of the knocks against thin clients are out of date or simply wrong. Thin clients are providing seamless desktop experiences, relieving IT security worries, and saving money in both power consumption and maintenance. Thin computing and thin client devices provide anytime, anywhere access to your computing environment and deliver a compelling user experience. Forget the myths -- and take a closer look at thin clients for your business.

New Tech Forum provides a means to explore and discuss emerging enterprise technology in unprecedented depth and breadth. The selection is subjective, based on our pick of the technologies we believe to be important and of greatest interest to InfoWorld readers. InfoWorld does not accept marketing collateral for publication and reserves the right to edit all contributed content. Send all enquiries to newtechforum@infoworld.com.

This article, "Debunked! 5 myths of thin client computing," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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