December 16, 2009, 8:55 PM — Back in the 1980s when PCs were first entering corporations, IT workers had to fight off the mainframers who wanted to keep their 3270 IBM terminals on their desktops. A similar battle is being waged these days with so-called thin clients, which lie at the heart of a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) rollout.
The arguments for thin clients are very similar to ones used in the PC vs. mainframe debate: thin clients are easier to manage and support, because they don't get into trouble with malware or viruses. Even if they are infected, an IT manager can quickly reset a thin client within a few seconds and bring it up to where an end user was just working. "If we have a security breach on a desktop, we just reprovision and it goes away," says Alan Deloera, the Director of Technology for the city of Temple, Texas.
What makes for a thin client? A number of things. First is form factor: these are small and light enough that they can hang on the back of a large LCD monitor, or be hidden inside a desk drawer. They have their own CPU and RAM but boot off the network and make use of network-attached storage for their OS and applications. They typically have no moving parts, and operate with lower power needs, so they are quiet and cool. A good place to start is this collection of vendors and reviews here.
The number of thin client vendors alone is staggering, from specialized vendors such as Wyse, ClearCube and Priam.com to lines from mainstream computing vendors such as HP (such as its t5530 Mobile Thin Client pictured here) and Sun's SunRay. Wyse has been in this business for more than a decade, and Sun had earlier network-based devices that it also sold for many years.
So where exactly is the savings with thin clients? One place it isn't is in their capital costs. With desktops now selling at $500 or less, most thin clients aren't much cheaper than their desktop equivalents, and some can cost a bit more.
The real cost savings is in recurring support costs, and these costs can quickly add up if thin clients aren't deployed correctly. JetBlue Airlines standardized on HP thin clients and claims to have saved millions in its desktop deployment.
One big savings is in extending the useful life of your existing pool of PCs. "We wanted to extend the use of our older PCs," says Chuck Ballard, the network and technical services manager at J&B Group, a food wholesaler and manufacturer based in St. Michael, Minn. "That ended up saving us about a $1,000 or so per desktop. Also, our support staff doesn't have to spend time troubleshooting hardware, when we have a problem we just swap it out with a spare PC and our associates are back up and running quickly. Plus, I don't need to extend warranties for any of this gear – if one breaks, I just replace it at that time."
Thin clients are also great if you really want the same exact desktop image to run across your corporation. Ballard points this out: for many enterprises, buying the exact same configuration is nearly impossible, even if an order is placed for multiple units with one vendor. "At one point we had up to 25 different images to support for 350 total desktops and 73 servers across three different vendors," he said. Having thin clients simplifies this process, because everyone can get the same desktop image delivered across the network, and the support staff doesn't have to worry about the individual variations or if one has a slightly different graphics adapter or hard drive.
Two other places where thin clients can save over the long term is in reduced staff headcounts for desktop support and in reduced power bills to operate them. Since each image is the same, you can often get by increasing the number of desktops that is supported by a single staffer, especially because many of the traditional desktop support tasks can be accomplished via remote control or server-side management tools. And since the thin clients consume fewer watts of power, the electricity savings can really add up. Deloera is using Wyse Thin Clients as his main desktops across various city agencies. "We are saving a little money in up front costs, but the management and security piece is where the real savings is. We are trying to manage more PCs with fewer people, and also reduce our power bills. Just on the 45 Wyse devices, I estimate we save about $2,800 total in a year."
Using thin clients doesn't mean having to switch to them exclusively. Often, IT shops mix and match, making use of older PCs that are still functional but run the virtual desktops from centralized servers, or use an embedded XP OS called Windows Fundamentals for Legacy PCs.
Larry Pickard is the Director of IT & Communications for the San Francisco Theological Seminary and has deployed more than 35 thin clients in his organization, mostly by recycling older PCs. "Our first year savings was around $750 per desktop, and for the second year around $925 each. We have a stockpile of older PCs and look forward to using the thin clients, after we get another two or three years that we have repurposed the PCs." The reason for the jump in second year savings has to do with reduced support costs and in savings to maintain the desktops. "There is a big savings in man-hours required to support and prepare each desktop machine," he says. "Plus, most VDI installations are on a much greater scale than ours, so the tools are really over designed for our use. But this makes our deployment much easier to accomplish, too."
Thin clients can also be useful in new construction or when moving to a new building, where an organization is trying to quickly rollout a large quantity of desktops. Jeff Keith, a senior network engineer with Redlands Community Hospital in Redlands Calif. turned to thin clients when they were building a new wing on their hospital last year. "We couldn't have built all of our PCs and mapped their drives for 100 desktops if we had to do it with traditional PCs for the new wing. With thin clients, there was no configuration, we just sent someone to put them in place." The hospital turned to HP because they had a bundle that included stripped-down desktops at $1,200 apiece along with the various server components to store the boot images. "The real cost savings are in lower maintenance and support, and ongoing upgrades. Thin clients offer really small form factors, very low power consumption, no moving parts, no fans and high reliability."
Another plus is troubleshooting desktop problems quickly. "We can flip a user over to another desktop session quickly with VDIWorks, and the user won't even know it is happening. We never have to physically go near the PC and this is a big bonus for us because some of them are in sterile environments such as operating rooms."
Keith started off using inexpensive iSCSI storage to hold the desktop images, and then migrated to a storage area network to improve the boot times for his desktops. This is another strategy with thin clients: you can grow your network infrastructure and storage as you deploy more thin clients around your enterprise.