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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