Are Thin Clients the right choice for your business?

If investing in a lot of hardware doesn't seem right at the moment should you go in for thin clients?

By Mithun Mohandas Published Date
10 - Jul - 2014
| Last Updated
27 - Nov - 2014
Are Thin Clients the right choice for your business?
This might probably be the first time that you are hearing of thin clients. The concept is anything but new, it’s just that it’s getting more popular by the day. A regular computer has a processor, motherboard, ram, graphics processing and more hardware packed into each machine. A thin client is a scaled down version of the same except most of them don’t have the concept of local storage. Moreover, one thin client can support multiple monitors, so each monitor becomes a workstation. The client-server model followed in a thin client system leverages the processing power of the server to handle all workloads of each client connected to it. 
If you’ve read anything about the history of computers then you’d recall that UNIX based operating systems had the concept back in the early days of computing where one computer would be powering multiple terminals all over a campus or throughout a single building. There was a simple facet to this type of an setup and that was to make efficient use of computing power. Having proper computers would have been worthless since they weren’t going to be used 24x7, so by sharing resources across multiple terminals the total cost of ownership gets reduced significantly, and computers weren’t exactly cheap back then.
As with any system, there are numerous advantages and disadvantages of such a system, before converting your work environment to a particular model one needs to perform a proper cost-to-benefit analysis. Hopefully, the following points will help you in your decision.
Low cost – The primary driving factor here would be cost of ownership. Since you don’t need to invest in high-end hardware for each station you end up spending less. This is, however, greatly dependant on what kind of work is being done at your establishment. If certain workers need to be given extra security or the work they are doing is of a far greater importance, having a single dedicated computer does make sense. Thin client systems also consume far less power individually, which when added up reduces the overall power consumption in the work area. 
Scalability – As and when new users arise, getting them a new workstation only requires you to purchase a new terminal and connecting it to the server. There is no need to set up software or perform any of the actions that are normal when getting a new machine. Think of it as a plug-and-play technology. And when the processing power at the server is lacking you can easily upgrade the server alone and save money while increasing total processing capabilities of the entire system.
Security – You can specify which station gets to access what and then you can have inherited permissions for different classes of users. Most of the operating systems managing such systems are based on Linux which ensures a far lower chance of malware infection.
Tiny but not low on power. Oh no, siree!
Maintenance – As mentioned earlier, most of the modifications need to be made at the server so the effort and time needed to sort things out is greatly reduced. Since most of the work data is stored on the server, any station can be used by any employee and the experience is the same. This way if individual clients are being serviced then the worker can be moved to a different client and there is no downtime at all.
Single point of failure – Unless you have a redundant server acting as a backup for your primary server you risk losing a lot of productivity if the server conks up. The server is that single point which is the backbone of the entire system. 
Universal restrictions – Any restrictions placed on the server affects all. So if at all a certain website gets blocked and later on the need to access it would mean having to modify server security rules which might become cumbersome. There are media heavy applications and websites which might slow down the server if many of the connected clients try to access at the same time. This causes problems for every client connected to the server.
Low latency network – Pivotal to a client server model is that the connection between the client and the server be as smooth as possible. Connecting over a wired connection is simple but when wireless communication is to be considered then the investment into routers and access points to ensure every client is enjoying a low-latency connection increases.
Cost of conversion – If you choose to go with one particular model and then wish to shift to another, it isn’t always the matter of installing a software and getting it over with. A thin client system requires a beefy server and such hardware isn’t exactly cheap. If converting, a proper cost analysis must be done in order to ensure that you don’t end up losing money instead of saving it in the long run.
Usage scenarios
Most applications of thin client systems revolves around prioritising who gets what amount of processing power allotted to them. A simple approach is to have employees who aren’t performing processor intensive tasks use thin client systems while those who need more power be given individual systems. Then there are systems which don’t require the need for any individual systems like schools. Every client can be a thin client and all data can be stored on the server with ease. Microsoft advertises its Multipoint Server for this purpose since it gives students the familiar Windows interface but allows the educator to have complete control over everything that goes on in the class room. The educator can decide what to project onto individual screens and also monitor what each student is working on at the moment. 
Workplaces that primarily operate via a browser like all data entry operations don’t require machines that boast of moderately powerful hardware. Thin client systems are perfect for such operations. 
Similarly, when employees have to perform on-site work then can simply carry a wireless terminal with them that can be used to connect to the server in the office. These wireless terminals often use SSDs and have no moving parts which makes them quite rugged. However, there mobile terminals are plagued with connectivity issues no matter which form of wireless medium they are on. 
Do you need to invest in thin clients?
At the moment customers don’t have much choice when it comes to picking a thin client system since very few manufacturers offer these devices. The clients are often powered by a Celeron or Atom processor and have multiple display ports attached to it, each enabling one station. These devices are quite underpowered and the average worker might find the experience cumbersome and a good portion of the IT administrator’s time would be spent educating employees over and over again. 
Thin and zero clients are catching up fast
A different approach can always be undertaken which doesn’t hold true to a thin client system’s definition. The old client server model is still better. The server in this case is beefy and each individual client is moderately powerful. But the server isn’t a single computer but a cluster of many machines that portrays itself in a single image. The computing power of a cluster allows users to run intensive operations on the cluster while the individual machine is used for something else. This approach works way better than thin client systems across many aspects and can service a lot many more employees with minimal investment. As and when more processing power is needed more computers can be added to the cluster. However, power consumption is a huge drawback of this system. This model is best suited for the majority of the work scenarios while thin clients are suited for low power consumption and low processing power needs.
One step ahead of the thin client technology is PCoIP. It’s a proprietary technology but mainstream brands have come out with products for the same. Another term used to describe this is “Zero-client” technology. The setup consists of a monitor which has one ethernet port and two USB ports for a keyboard and a mouse. Extra USB ports or card readers have been seen on certain models. The device uses PoE (Power over Ethernet) to deliver up to 40W which helps power the display and the hardware connected to the device but most of the devices we’ve come across does make use of a separate power connector. It’s simply a remote desktop with all the processing happening over at the server. Video and data is channeled via ethernet which has more than enough capacity to handle the two. QoS settings enable a smooth display experience. 
Thin and Zero clients are catching up given all cost benefits they offer, let us know if you are thinking of adopting the same for your SOHO. 
Mithun MohandasMithun Mohandas

While not dishing out lethal doses of sarcasm, this curious creature can often be found tinkering with tech, playing vidya' games or exploring the darkest corners of the Internets. #PCMasterRace