Zero clients for virtual desktops?

Zero client solutions such as Pano Logic's Pano System 4 trump PCs and thin clients in ease, simplicity, and long-term ROI, if users can work within the limitations

Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) has brought renewed interest to alternative endpoints, especially thin clients. After all, if the desktop is running remotely as a virtual machine, why should you use an expensive, power-hungry PC to access it?

However, thin clients are far from perfect. Thin clients may be less expensive, as well as easier to and service than a PC, but those advantages are only evident when comparing a new thin client purchase against a new PC purchase. In fact, VDI offers the most bang for the buck when used with legacy PCs, eliminating the need to buy new client hardware.

Even if a client hardware refresh is on your agenda, you'll want to weigh the advantages of thin clients carefully. Most thin clients are based on technologies that were developed for terminal services solutions. They have CPUs and operating systems, and they require software installation, configuration, and maintenance. Like PCs, they must be provisioned and managed. In other words, though thin clients offer advantages over PCs, they carry some of the same baggage.

Zero client trade-offs
If you're willing to sacrifice some flexibility, you can eliminate this baggage entirely with a zero client. Unlike a thin client, a zero client has no local processing and no operating system, nor does it require software installation or configuration. It's a tiny, ultrasimple, plug-and-play device that uses very little power, never needs maintenance, and can be deployed in an instant by any end-user with enough brains to breathe.

What do you give up? At the very least, the zero client might be tied to a specific remote computing protocol or virtualization platform. For example, Wyse zero clients are available for Citrix HDX and VMware View, but not Microsoft RDP. Moreover, the zero client might be part of a completely proprietary VDI solution that limits access to virtual desktops to the vendor's own endpoint devices. This is the case with the NComputing and Pano Logic solutions, for example, neither of which makes virtual desktops available to third-party clients or via the Web (see "InfoWorld review: Desktop virtualization made easy"), nor do they work well over a WAN.

The maintenance-free Pano Zero Client has no CPU, firmware, or operating system, but includes multiple USB 2.0 ports, an audio port, and dual-monitor support -- all driven from the server.

Nonetheless, when deployed with VDI, zero clients have the potential to replace traditional desktop hardware as part of a hardware refresh strategy and to bring virtualization to the desktop without having to spend the time and money to reconfigure and reprovision existing hardware. Plus, PC-related downtime and support costs become a thing of the past. In some deployments, such as where sensitive data is concerned, restricting access to proprietary devices can be an advantage.

The thinnest thin client
Pano Logic's Pano Zero Client is arguably the "zero-est" zero client of all. It has no onboard processing, operating system, or intelligence whatsoever, but is simply an "I/O redirector" that works via TCP/IP. The Pano device is inherently much simpler than a thin client, and because there is no firmware to be updated or "hard associations" to be created between the zero client and the virtual machine that comprises a user's virtual desktop, it makes discovery and provisioning for VDI a much easier process.

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