Are thin client devices still relevant in a world of $300 Dell PCs?

I know I’ve ranted about this before but I’m going to have to do it again. Earlier this week I received an email from Dell about their latest offerings.

I know I’ve ranted about this before but I’m going to have to do it again. Earlier this week I received an email from Dell about their latest offerings. My entire home lab is Dell-based. Why? Because they're cheap and reliable. Anyway, in the email I got they were offering a PC to me (as a consumer) for €249 (which is about $325). The specs of this machine are:

  • AMD AthlonTM 64 3200+ processor
  • XP Home
  • 512MB DDR2 533Mhz
  • 80GB SATA (7,200rpm)
  • Integrated nVidia 6150-LE_Nforce
  • 48x CD-RW/DVD Combo

So nothing fancy right? Sure, if you look at it in terms of a game PC for home. But what if you look at it as a thin client or a company PC? Just to compare prices: one of the better and cheaper thin clients out there in my mind is the Wyse S10. These go for $289 (list price).
So if you think about it, for about thirty bucks extra you could have a fully-fledged PC in stead of a thin client. Now I have always been a strong believer in thin clients mainly because of the following advantages:

  • No moving parts, so a longer lifespan
  • Lower investment (purchase cost)
  • Security: no data is on the device
  • Lower Power Consumption
  • Almost no management cost (dumb device)

But if you take a look at these arguments today, this is what it looks like:

No moving parts, so a longer lifespan

True. Say that a PC lasts 3 years and a Thin Client 5 years. Even if this were to be true this does not do you that much good. Unless you’re using a Thin Client to Telnet into your AS400 system then even Thin Clients get overage at about three years. Examples:
New OSes (Windows XPe, Windows CE, Linux) that require more resources that the Thin Client eventually can’t provide.
New other software: ICA Clients, RDP 6 Client, ThinPrint clients etc. that require more resources that the Thin Client eventually can’t provide.

New peripherals become a commodity and users need to use them. The Thin Client might not be able to provide in this, certainly not at the hardware level.

Most important of all: the use of Server Based Computing environments is getting more and more graphically intense. Like I said, if you only use telnet then you’re fine but the reality is that once your environment offers a Windows Server 2007 Desktop with Word 2007 and Internet Explorer 8 then your Thin Client is toast.

Lower investment (purchase cost)

Well this is what started me on this rant. This used to the case but not anymore. It’s quite obvious that in this day and age Thin Clients are almost priced the same as a regular PC. Even though I am not a Thin Client vendor, I can not imagine that a company like Dell can produce a full sized PC for the same (or sometimes even a lower ) price as a Thin Client. I think that there should be a way to build a decent[/u] Thin Client for under $200. I emphasize the word decent because the are some Thin Client out there that do cost about $200 but frankly: they suck bigtime.

Security: no data is on the device

True but if you design your environment right then there should also be no data on your “Fat Client”. You can use group policy to lock them down as tight as you want.

Lower Power Consumption

This is true. Especially when you’re using a lot of thin clients, this can make for quite a bit of savings. However, the biggest power consumer in desktop PCs--the CPU--is using less and less energy. If you do the math I think that this advantage will get smaller as time goes by.

Almost no management cost (dumb device)

Historically this has been dubbed as the biggest money saver. And it is true. For example, some Wyse thin clients only require a network connection (and a configured FTP server) to work. So they literally work out of the box without any configuration. And of course on a thin client there is little a user can mess up. They cannot play solitaire on it and then can’t use it to install their favorite fileshare software. These advantages almost make it sound like it’s impossible to secure fat clients. I think this stems from the fact that around when Windows 2000 (Terminal Services) came out this was indeed the case. Group Polices and stuff like that were new. But these days, if you do it right, you can configure a Fat Client in such a way that it can only serve the purpose that you want it to. You could go even further and turn it into a Thin Client, by installing Windows FLP or using Thin Client server for example.

So these were the “advantages” of using Thin Clients. What about the drawbacks? Well, there are two major drawbacks to using Thin Clients

  • Usually Thin Clients have poor video performance
  • Thin Clients are very inflexible

Usually Thin Clients have poor video performance

This really is a big problem. Even the best of the Thin Clients (and by this is do not mean a Thin Client with a $300 PCI-X Graphics Card added ) have moderate graphical capabilities at best. The Dell PC I referenced to can have up to 256MB video memory and performs much better. This is really important issue because the end-user experience is very much dependent on the way the screen “performs.” You could be the only user on a Terminal server with 8 CPUs and 16 GB of RAM and be running Internet Explorer and still get “bad performance.”

This is a phenomenon that is becoming more and more common since the way server-based computing is being used is getting more and more graphically intense. Think about it: five years ago broadband internet, 100 page PDF papers and skinned applications were extremely rare. These days the local senior citizens association has a huge flash-based website, every single emailed document or flyer is a PDF file and the most popular text editor by Microsoft is “skinned” by default in Office 2007. So you WILL need video power to cope with all of this and this isn’t one of the strengths of Thin Clients.

Thin Clients are very inflexible

In today’s world, companies require that their infrastructure is dynamic and allows it to cope with changing business demands. This is not something that rimes with Thin Clients. The software (firmware) on the Thin Clients cannot (or hardly) be updated on demand. Usually you’re dependent on the vendor to release new firmware updates. Also, hardware upgrades like more memory or a faster CPU are usually impossible to do. Fat clients (like the aforementioned Dell) are able to cope with change. Software and hardware can be upgraded in any way the IT department pleases. Also, take into account technology like application streaming (Softricity, Citrix Streaming Server) or even OS streaming (Ardence). These technologies will co-exist or even integrate with server-based computing. Fat clients will be able to use these technologies without any adjustments. Thin clients will not be able to do so.

Conclusion

In today’s and future server-based computing environments, it seems like thin clients are losing their advantages. Todays technology allows for you to design fat client configurations in such a way that they provide the same benefits that thin clients do while still delivering better video performance and providing the necessary flexibility. So unless thin client vendors are able to start producing good thin clients at low prices, I think the future of thin clients look bleak.

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