Converting PCs into thin clients - a rundown of a suddenly crowded niche

Gabe looks at the growing field of PC-to-thin client converting solutions available and where they fit among the two product categories.

On Brian Madden TV last week, we talked about a number of the PC-to-Thin Client conversion products on the market, and it became pretty clear that there are quite a few products out there.  Each of these products fits into one of two categories, so it seems fitting to give a rundown of each category and the products that fit into them.

The Categories

There are two main categories, each with a few different products.

Type 1 - Windows-based Conversion Products

These products live in Windows, locking down the interface so that users can only do certain, pre-configured things. The software can be installed or deployed in whatever manner a company is used to deploying applications.  

Since these solutions ride on top of Windows, management issues like OS patching still exist, however if your organization is already set up to manage all the Windows OS's out there (as most are), that's not necessarily a bad thing because you won't have to invest in any other management infrastructure.

Since this runs on Windows, there are no driver, USB device, or printer issues (at least none that weren't there before you installed the conversion product).

Products in the category are:

ThinLaunch Thin Desktop

ThinLaunch hangs its hat on the outright simplicity of ThinDesktop, which I must admit caught our eye at BriForum.  Upon installation, you tell it what app (presumably a connectivity app like Citrix App Receiver or VMware View client), and it replaces the shell with that executable.  If the user logs out or closes the app, they're automatically logged back in and the app is launched again. Changes to the application configuration are made via the registry, so you can use whatever tool you're used to using for registry changes (packages, group policies, etc...) to make configuration changes.

ThinDesktop (which is also being sold under the same name by 10Zig, formerly BOSaNOVA) runs on any version of Windows at or above Windows 2000, including Windows XPe and netbooks. The product is available today, and pricing is as low as $26/device, with volume discounts after 10 devices.

You can see the video of ThinLaunch ThinDesktop from the BriForum 2009 Demo Lab floor here.

Autometrixs KioskMaker

Autometrixs KioskMaker is currently in beta, but was shown to us at VMworld 2009 by it's creator, veteran BriForum speaker Michael Thomason. KioskMaker is similar to ThinDesktop in that it rides on top of Windows and has a focus on simplicity, although it does have more configurable options. One of the main differentiators is that KioskMaker includes a locked down Internet Explorer web browser that can be used to deliver web apps or various web interfaces without giving access to the full on Internet Explorer (of course this is possible with ThinDesktop, too, but it's something you'd have to set up on your own, not part of the product). Configuration is done via an XML file that can be updated any number of ways after it has been deployed.

The product is available today with editions starting at $25/device. Volume discounts are available.

Type 2 - Thin Client OS or Slimmed Down OS-based Conversion Products

The products, while running on PC hardware, are running some version of a thin client or slimmed down operating system.  Some products use similar OS's to what their company uses on its thin clients, while others are Linux-based.

These solutions aren't as vulnerable to security problems, and can even be provisioned on boot so that the client is refreshed each time it's started.  That way, if something should happen, the machine can just be powered off and restarted without any repercussions.

Management typically involves some sort of additional management infrastructure beyond that of simply managing Windows environments, but in the case of using thin client OS-based solutions, that infrastructure might already exist.

Products in this category are best broken into sub-categories because two of them are made by terminal manufacturers, while the others are made by organizations that are strictly software thin client oriented.  All of these solutions run some flavor of Linux.

Terminal Manufacturer Solutions

First, we'll look at the offerings from the terminal manufacturers. These products actually install a thin client OS on the PC itself (leaving Windows  and the filesystem intact because they modify the boot.ini), which is cool for a couple of reasons.  One, it allows you to manage the device just like the other thin clients that you have in your environment (assuming, of course, you have terminals from the same vendor). The other reason this type of solution makes sense is that it gives you a migration path to convert to thin clients.  Many companies have old PC's laying around, or PC's they don't want to get rid of yet because they work just fine.  A solution like like this allows you to continue using those devices until they die, at which point you can replace them with terminals that look the same to the end user and manage the same on the back end.

Installation is a matter of running an executable in Windows, which installs the bits and modifies the boot.ini file to point to the new OS.  This leaves the old Windows intact and available if needed, but automatically boots into the thin client OS.

Devon IT VDI Blaster

VDI Blaster, announced just before VMworld 2009, allows you to deploy Devon IT's DeTOS thin client operating system to PC's. This allows you to manage it just as if it were another thin client in you environment, and enables that easy transition path to a terminal when and if the hardware dies.  VDI Blaster is available today and is priced at $19.99 per device.

Wyse Project Borg

Project Borg, a yet-to-be-named product from Wyse, was announced at VMworld and is scheduled for a beta release in early October, 2009.  Borg, based on SuSe linux, allows you to turn any PC into a managed or unmanaged thin client, meaning you can use Wyse Device Manager to manage the box if you want, or you can simply configure each client to check a file share or FTP site for updates, should you decide to send one out.  The main benefit of Project Borg is that it has Wyse's TCX capabilities built into it, so even though it isn't a physical Wyse thin client, you can still take advantage of multimedia enhancements that TCX offers.

Software Company Solutions

2X ThinClientServer

ThinClientServer, based on the formerly open source PXES project, has been around for some time. TCS allows you to deploy a linux-based operating system to clients via PXE, hard drive installation, USB stick, or bootable CD, but it cannot be deployed to Windows desktops for automatic install like the solutions from Wyse and Devon IT.  Devices are centrally managed, and have the ability to connect to ICA and RDP-based sessions.  There is no mention about VDI solutions such as VMware View or Citrix XenDesktop, however.

ThinClientServer is available today with pricing as low as around $7 per device for 1000 devices.  It is free for 1-5 devices.

ThinStation (open source)

ThinStation - this is one of the open source solutions that I've heard about, but never used.  Still, I feel that they've been around long enough to include in this rundown, and they do support just about everything out there. Deployment methods also include just about everything, including PXE, hard drive installation, USB, and CD, and, according to their website, it requires no Linux knowledge at all.  Without speculating on the product anymore, I'll just ask that if you have any experience with ThinStation or any other open source product in this space, leave a comment and let me know what your feelings are, whether or not it works for you, and so on.

IGEL PC to TC Conversion Card

On the surface, this looks like a hardware solution. With this solution, you purchase a card fits into an expansion slot in the computer, but does not take up any PCI slots.  After installing, you simply disconnect the hard drive's IDE cable and plug it into the card.  Then, the computer boots to a CompactFlash card that's pre-installed in the device.  So, you're essentially buying a CompactFlash to IDE interface preloaded with a CF card containing IGEL's thin client OS, which can then be managed however you want.

I actually called IGEL to ask them how much this thing costs, but was told that it was complicated and that people should just talk to their resellers.  I got the idea that I wasn't told because I'm a blogger and they didn't want me disclosing the price, but whatever.  If you want to know, just find an IGEL reseller and ask them. I'm guessing by the cost of CF to IDE adapters on Amazon that's it somewhere between $8 and $500 per device.

Cult (open source)

And finally, Cult.  I learned about Cult about 20 minutes ago, when searching for information on the PXES project that was absorbed by 2X.  Originally, PXES was still available as the open source alternative to ThinClientServer, but that is no longer the case.  The PXES.org website links to Cult as "the best open source thin client operating system," so I figured I should follow it and see what came up.  All I can confirm right now is that it is indeed a thin client operating system, but I'll leave it up to the community to share any experiences with it.

Wrap-up

EIGHT! That's how many software thin client products are out there right now (I'm sure I've left out some). That might be approaching the number of physical thin client vendors! If you have any experience with any of these packages or any that I've left off, let us know in the comments.

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XP Fundamentals with Windows Steady State is a nice combo. Fundamentals does req SA.


Although technically you arent meant to use it for persistant production environments - Windows PE.


You can use it via CD or boot it into RAM via RIS.


There are various build tools, If you dont want to do it by hand.


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There is a Thin Client product from a company called SoThin - www.sothin.net/prod_thin.html - which runs on the Windows platform and seems to be a lot more feature rich than the featured products, allowing you to run multiple local apps as well as rdp, citrix connections etc. Also has a management product allowing you to deploy/update etc so espically good for saving time.


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I have created a script at my blog which works similar to the ThinLaunch. The only differnce are script vs GUI.


Eric


www.xenappblog.com


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That's pretty cool, Trond.  Slap a GUI on it and sell it for $20/head!


@Rahvintzu, I left of Fundamentals because of the SA requirement, but it is a valid configuration.  I probably should've mentioned it though, so thanks for bringing it up.


I do know some people that use Windows PE (namely BartPE) on a thumb drive in that matter, but it's mostly an admin tool.  I could see a fit for disaster recovery sites, though.  Just burn a bunch of CD's with whatever PE you'd like to use and have them ready to go.  That way you only need to update one image and burn a bunch of copies, as opposed to imaging all the DR PC's.


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Personally I think you are missing the larger picture:


www.dabcc.com/article.aspx


The Consumer Thin Clients Flooding the market and what that means to virtualization and "Cloud" computing......This is just coming from an EX-CORE R&D THIN CLIENT ENGINEER....


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Thanks for mentioning CULT as an Open Source alternative for thin clients.


CULT is a platform to customize a thin client operating system to suite special needs. There's a very illustrative example of CULT running Google Chrome from "network boot" to "ready to browse" in 10 seconds (one of the objectives of the upcoming Google Chrome OS).


Take a look at the video and read the explanation here: cult.codtech.com/cult-classic-custom-google-chrome-edition


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Also, don't forget OS Streaming (Wyse WSM, Citrix PVS). Many customers prefer streaming a stripped version of XP Pro to the PCs or Thin Clients with a simple RDP client.


By the way, a VDI session accessed from Windows vs non-Windows platform has roughly $80 (list price) difference for VECD licensing on the back-end.


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@rahvintzu, I agree WInFLP is very valid and gives you the HCL of XP meaning one can run it on any commodity hardware device. No need for thin clients in many many cases. They are a niche solution.


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@gabe


I think WinPE has an XP license issue that most people ignore.  The Pedantic amongst us might need to take notice.


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Brings back tearful memories of the DOS-based ICA client boot floppy I use to use which later evolved into a DOS-based boot CD ICA Client (for NIC drivers).   Bahahahahha!


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Yeah, good point, Tim.  But maybe if you already own XP? Oh well, it's not like it's the best solution anyway...


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@Glenda - this isn't about buying new hardware, it's just a rundown of the products that exist to repurpose your existing hardware as thin clients so that they are less of an administrative burden.


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As you already stated there are supplier in this market for example Multiframe and ThinWin. I did a couple of reviews of such products, which can be found on my website at sbc.vanbragt.net/.../index.php.


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Just so people are aware... PE does have a restart timer built in so you dont live in it. For V2/3 its 72 hrs, on older versions its 24hrs.


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@Gabe Just one correction: the 2X ThinClientServer is NOT based on PXES. 2X acquired PXES later on from Diego Torres Milano. Way before that the first releases of the 2X product were available. Down the road yes, certain things on PXES probably made they way into the 2X product. And as far as I remember they kept the PXES still free. Not sure if it is still the case today.


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Talking about OS streaming for PCs/Desktop, there are some other (and cheaper) solutions than Wyse Streaming manager and Citrix PVS.


In particular, you can use HP Image Manager.


And you can even evaluate it for free for 90 days and 20 clients:


h20392.www2.hp.com/.../try.do


Use a "small" Windows (XP or Vista for instance) installation with your remote desktop application (RDP, ICA, VNC...) and needed layers and here you are, you have your ThinPCs.


You can even remove their HDD


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@Claudio - I was wondering if that's still the case, since PXES isn't available anymore.  In fact, if you go to the 2X site for PXES (http://www.2x.com/pxes/), it takes you right to TCS, so I figured they'd meshed the two products together as part of some ultimate goal (otherwise, why buy PXES?)  


To everyone else suggesting other products - thanks!  I knew there were others, but finding all of them is pretty hard to do.  This is the low hanging fruit, so to speak.  So, if you know of any other packaged solutions, let us know here.  And for all the other ways you can provision thin clients...that might be another article altogether!


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As most of the seasoned TS geeks out there I have played with the various PC2TC things. On of the first was that shelaunch thing (back in the thin.net days) .


My own take on the matter was developing a highly restricted IE shell that was only capable of delivering Citrix Web Interface. I coupled the thing with what is nowdays(?) known as Windows Steady State together with IP-sec restrictions and... However, I dropped the project, lost the source, and here I am :-)


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www.splashtop.com why do I need a Thin client?


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Nice post - unfortunately you missed out LISCON Managed Desktop (LMD) - A software solution, no hardware changes or usb dongles necessary. It's based on Ubuntu - so there's a lot of supported hardware. The LMD is fully managable by LISCONs Management Console.  


Information and evaluation version here:


www.liscon.com/.../29-lisconmanageddesktop


video about the management console with the iphone interface:


www.youtube.com/watch


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120 users in production here with thinstation connecting to a metaframe citrix farm. Would like to upfrade to XenApp, but I'm very satisfied with thinstation.


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So many tools available for this. The great thing is this is becoming common place. Which is good for all of us.


The tool I prefer is free and very flexible as an admin check out the Article and tool from Guy Leech (VMware vExpert award winner in 2009)


www.insidetheregistry.com/.../viewarticle.aspx


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Gabe - here in st louis this niche is catching on like fire!  Every unemployed IT Networking guy is jumping into this market.


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I have been spending a lot of time lately researching these solutions. I am doing charity work for an urban school in my state. They face the same challenges that every nonprofit or small business faces, no time, no money, and no resources. Also, like other schools, they receive a lot of donated equipment. However, the equipment is often missing hard drives or RAM so there is always a cost that goes into making these PCs actually work. Once running with a Windows build, the mgmt nightmare begins because these schools have very limited IT resources.


I have been using CULT. I have found it very easy to customize and I was able to have it up and running in about 30 min. Thanks Diego! I will also check out some of the other alternatives. If any of you guys have other suggestions or experience in the charity area, please PM me.


On a side note, I know there is a lot of experience on this forum therefore if you have ever thought of doing charity work, I strongly recommended it. It is nice to see schools benefit from our experience plus it really forces you to be creative.


Shanetech…


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I would like to test CULT, I have some old machines which I want to use as thin client (brute terminals), So I would like to know where I can get any help (documentation) on how to install cult on a local hard disk.


Booting from a CD I received a Kelnel Panic-Not Syncing


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Well, Gabe, once again, just like Brian, you have completely ignored a "Type 3": the stateless desktop device with no OS.. Why don't you take a look at the Sun Microsystems Ultra Thin Client, Sun Ray? It has just celebrated it's 10th birthday. That's right, Sun was deploying "thin clients" or  more exactly, "zero clients" before the industry even thought of the idea. You guys reviewed the product a couple of releases back and haven't mentioned it since. Too bad actually, Sun is into the 5th generation of the Sun Ray Server Software, SRS 5 is due out mid-Nov, along with a new release of Sun xVM VDI. You really should take an in-depth look at Sun Ray and the wisdom of the design. Is it perfect? I think all these products have about a 75% fit, so no, it's not perfect. But for those situations where it is a fit, there is nothing better.


Brian knows who to contact at Sun, which should be the first choice, and I'll be glad to help out also.


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Whoa there, @Art Peck - this was a rundown of methods to convert PC's into thin clients, not of actual thin clients.  I'm not ignoring anything.


Sun Ray thin clients, when it comes to actual thin clients, are in a class all to themselves (as any Sun Ray fan will tell you :).  You'd be hard pressed to find someone who is indifferent towards them--people love 'em or hate 'em.


If I ever do a hardware thin client roundup, Sun Ray is in there without a doubt.  


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ThinWin !


Drop me an email if you want it - I'll give it to you for free :-)


www.thinmaster.com


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I'm looking for a solution like this to eliminate the XP footprint, and therefore the viral risk on repurposed PCs.   It looks like Thinstation takes some work to get working on various hardware & installed on the local hard drive.   If anyone has any updates/new options in this arena, please leave a followup message.  Thanks.


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2X ThinClientServer 6.2 Supports: 2X VirtualDesktopServer, 2X ApplicatonServer, Citrix XenApp (w/ Rave), VMware View and Linux NX.


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Has anyone else tried fat2thinPC


We've been testing for about 15 days now on 100 computers and it seems great, flash is working great with the Citrix HDX technology and for us the most important thing is load balancing, we tried SoThin which was great but then we noticed it wasn’t load balancing.


I think we will be purchasing Fat2thinpc got a quote yesterday its pretty reasonable. Definitely worth looking at.


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Hey, we have used the Igel Converter utility and its a doddle. Dont know where you got the Igel info posted above - all sounds quite complicated. You buy one converter USB device to hold the licence SIM, €50.00, a number of licences (ours were Linux UD2 @ 50.00 each). First, create a bootable CD from the supplied documentation. Then visit each PC, stick the CD and USB stick in, boot up and watch it all happen...takes about 5 minutes (not including setup for connecting to Citrix farm).


Its also possible to do all this remotely using Igel's Universal Management System, but we couldnt get our legacy PCs to boot from network (need to set up PXE environment which sounded a tad involved). We are glad happy to walk around and use the CD...cant wait to go stalking some old slow PCs...!


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