Last week at BriForum, HP caught my eye a couple of times. First, they had a huge booth with what looked to be an aircraft simulator (which you can buy yourself for $2800). By the time I got to the booth on Thursday it was gone, but it looked like it was pretty cool. The other thing that grabbed my attention was their new zero client offering, dubbed Smart Service, which runs on two existing thin clients, now dubbed Smart Clients. This is interesting to me for two reasons. First, because it's nice to see HP endorsing the stateless zero client concept. Second, because zero client is sort of a misnomer, and I think it might be time to redefine it (or pick a new name for what HP and Wyse are doing). Before we get to the whole "What is a zero client?" debate, let's take a look at the solution.
Smart Service is the name of the technology HP is using to turn their existing thin client devices into zero clients (or Smart Clients). This sounds a bit like Wyse Xenith zero clients, which are essentially re-branded C-class devices, but where Xenith only works with HDX (and therefore Citrix), HP Smart Clients can work with HDX, PCoIP, and RDP. It does this by deploying different packages to the device based on need. So, if you have XenDesktop on day one, you can deploy the HDX client to the devices. But, if you want to dump XenDesktop and bring in View, you can re-provision those same thin clients as RDP/PCoIP thin clients without replacing the hardware.
Currently, there are derivations of the t5565 and the t5335 models (now the t5565z and the t5335z) that come pre-configured for Smart Service, but it is possible to convert your existing, non-Smart Service models to zero clients as well. The t5565 model supports dual screens and is x86 based, which means that it can run HDX, RDP, and PCoIP. The lighter-weight t5335 model only supports a single screen, and only supports HDX and RDP. HP says that there isn't a good enough PCoIP decoder for the ARM processor that powers the t5335 yet.
Now, on to why I'm not sure we should call these "zero clients." In my mind, there are only two true zero clients on the market: Oracle Sun Ray and the Pano cube. Each of these is a true zero client because there is quite literally nothing on them. Ever. Not even after they boot up. There is never any flashing to do, never any maintenance, nothing. The Wyse and HP solutions both require a base "firmware" that drives how the device operates. Wyse calls it an "engine" or "firmware" instead of an OS (watch around 5:40 in this video demo of Wyse Xenith). HP's solution on the device is similar, using a tiny Linux kernel to boot and grab actual client bits from the Smart Service backend.
In both cases, the FirmwEngOS (get it? Firmware Engine OS?) contains the actual client bits, and those bits are refreshed at each boot. This is where Wyse and HP get away with calling it a "zero client," since nothing really exists on the device at boot apart from a tiny bit of software that connects it to the proper image. So, if you want to define "zero client" as "stateless devices that are of no use without client software and configuration information provided by a backend at each power cycle," then I'll go with that, but I feel like it takes away from the technology that Pano and Oracle have created in their solutions.
In either case, it's not my goal to take anything away from the technology, because I think it has a lot of value to organizations. HP and Wyse have put a lot of effort into simplifying the thin client space after years of focusing on complex devices that required almost as much management as PC's, and this latest round from HP adds a degree of flexibility that was overdue. Call it whatever you want…I just hope it continues in this direction.