Thin client devices: more or less relevant in the future?

It's 2009. Are we still talking about whether thin client devices will be relevant in the future?

It's 2009. Are we still talking about whether thin client devices will be relevant in the future?


(As in "yep, we're talking about it," not saying "yep, they'll be relevant.")

To be fair, I think the conversation is different this time around. (Or at least it can be said that the specific aspects of the conversation is different.) For example, in past years, we'd talk about things like "should you buy a thin client device?" versus "should you buy a cheap PC and lock it down and use it like the thin client?" But in both cases, you're still talking about a "thin client" on the desktop, making your answer "yes, [some form of] thin clients will be relevant in the future." But the larger trends in desktop virtualization might change that.

In the past, thin client devices were used for server-based computing. As I wrote earlier this week, server-based computing traditionally offered four benefits: Management, Access, Performance, and Security. And since thin client devices were traditionally nothing more than dumb portals into server-based computing, one could argue that thin client devices offered the same four benefits.

So why isn't every single client device in the world a thin client? Well right off the bat, thin clients can't be used offline, so pretty much any laptop that leaves a building can't be a thin client. But what about every single desktop computer? Couldn't every single corporate desktop in the world be replaced with a thin client?

Today the answer is no, because (1) not all applications are server-based computing compatible, and (2) not every company can make terminal server or VDI work for their back-end. However, I've somewhat famously been quoted in the past saying that "in the future, EVERY desktop device could become a thin client." This is true if you believe my VDI 2010 vision, because key parts of that are (1) remote display protocols--especially over a LAN--will be perfect, and (2) management of the back-end will be layered and simple. So in that version of the future, yes, every LAN-connected device could become a thin client.

But there's a huge irony there. If you believe the 2010 VDI vision, then you believe that while every LAN-connected device could become a thin client, no LAN-connected device would have to become a thin client.

Going back to the four reasons people use server-based computing today (Management, Access, Performance, and Security), if you're talking about LAN-connected devices in June 2010, you don't need SBC for management since we can run a managed Windows instance locally. And since we're talking about LAN-connected devices, the access, performance, and security become less important.

This means that in June 2010, we'll still be having the conversation about "Should I buy a thin client?" versus "Should I buy a cheap PC?" But the "cheap PC" option will change from today's "Cheap PC for the purpose of locking it down to use as a thin client" into 2010's "cheap PC for the purpose of running a client hypervisor and a fully managed, layered, dynamically-composed Windows instance."

Of course there will always be specific use cases for server-based computing, and within the walls of every corporation the "thin client versus PC" conversation will be hashed out around the specific needs of that company. But at the macro level, do you think net sales of thin clients will increase (because more people can use them) or decrease (because fewer people have to) in the future?

One final note: I fully recognize that a thin client can have enough horsepower to run a client hypervisor and Windows locally, and that thin client devices are not only for server-based computing. But in that use case, how is a thin client different than a lightweight managed device? Is a netbook a thin client? Is a cheap PC with V-Pro a thin client? Do we just define it by what Wyse makes versus what Lenovo makes?

Join the conversation


Send me notifications when other members comment.

Please create a username to comment.

While Hosted VDI is more mature then Distributed VDI, thinclients will have a higher count.

When Distributed becomes more mature, the thinclient becomes the distributed client. The thinclient doesn’t have to run a huge workloads, all it needs is the base OS and hosted VDI connection tools.

If this happens you could throw away your vendor device based image/config management tools (read... duplication).

And simply use your Distributed VDI tools, the ones you use for FAT and thin,


Brian, I think you're missing a piece of the Thin Client puzzle, specifically connectivity.  Sure, Thin Clients that leave the building have problems because they can't get to the SBC environment, however Verizon, Sprint and other carrier aircards are getting cheaper and better all the time (I'm typing this response from an HP Thin Client Laptop with a Verizon aircard at a Hotel where I don't trust the wifi).  The last thing we're waiting for is wifi on the airplanes.  We'll admit there are some folks who want to work on emails/docs on the plane, but I think we can get there.  We've had several thin client laptops stolen and in those cases they've paid for themselves over and over.  I'm not going to say a properly locked down netbook couldn't do the job, but the battery life on these devices is incredible, and they're pre-locked down for us.  It's just a really easy setup once you figure out how you can fit them into your environment.  


Please don't forget that complete support for locally connected devices is a must.  It's a real pain when you can't use a device because it doesn't have a WinCE driver you can use.


A plus of thinclient vs netbook for example.

Is that netbooks normally fall in vendors consumer range of products. As such they arent offered with a hardware specification lock for core device driver changes. This is where Tier1 hypervisors on these platforms have increased value.

Im hoping that vendors will create a corporate netbook, still at the reduced price but with a locked in hw lifecycle.


Maybe a mixture of both in our corporate lan.

But for branches the answer is still simple. thin.


I am seeing a high number of companies that are looking at Thin Clients, regardless of the brand.  One of the big drivers is consolidation of the data center and reduction in facility costs which you don't mention.  Frankly A LOT of companies are looking at "Going Green" and Thin Clients are a BIG part of that story.


Who manages Thin clients at scale, how good are those tools. how do you feel about being locked into a custom hardware and software. Thin clients cost more in management headaches then they save anywhere else. Netbooks a lot more standard.


In support of appdetective.

Due to the low thin client count I have in my org.

And the vendor based management tools... being abit painful.... and archaic.

I have switched to not purchasing any more thinclients.

Instead im using atom based system, with locked down OS. This way i simply reuse my currently invested management solution (SCCM).

Steadystate is free from MS, and can simply be added to the task sequence in OSD.



Customers start looking at thin devices because they are led to believe that it is going to cost significantly less for a thin device as opposed to a PC. So far, that just hasn't proven to be true.

The second reason they consider getting thin devices is that they are led to believe they are easier to manage. For the most part, this has also proven to be untrue.

Thirdly, customers are led to believe that they can keep these thin devices for years and years longer than a PC. Unfortunately, the hardware in these things can't keep up with the size of the firmware upgrades and thin device vendors tend to retire the models quickly so as to maintain new sales.

If a hypervisor layer can be added plus affordable fast solid state disks with room for firmware updates and offline images, then maybe this new "thin device" will become popular.

We need end-user devices that don't add to the eWaste dilemna. Thin devices can offer that provided the vendors can come up with sustainable support structures that allow companies to continue to use these devices for 6 ro 15 years or longer without replacement.


I say focus on the backend, let’s just make things easy and say the client doesn’t matter..... The old Citrix thinking 

I guess in the real world you can’t do that and this thin client relevance discussion will diehard. I guess the reason for this is that really not much has changed in nine years. Sure we have more tools and virtualization techniques but really the same challenges exist (change,cost,compatibility,management) Can it be boiled down to users like PC’s and fat flexibility? I guess as the years pass network dependent devices become more capable and “cooler” but the core issues remain justified or not. All of the goodness of the thin world seems to be often ignored by some.

I have seen companies embrace thin clients and a few years later flush them…does that make a company less likely to try again in the short term…? So to many companies they could be less relevant going forward because of past failure.

As the lines blur for the definition of a “thin client” I say the relevance is irrelevant.

Let’s repackage the “thin client” and sell it under a new name…


@Allan Harder @rahvintzu @appdetective I totally agree and support the notion that they will die a slow death and am seeing this in my organisation. We've just "forklifted" 600 base Wyse devices out because the business requirement changed to now include multi mon. They initially swore they didn't need multi mon !!!!

At sub 250USD for a standard desktop it's hard for Thin Clients to compete. Keep in mind the functional thin client is still a managed device.

The challenge is to only "control" things that need to be controlled. In my mind put the effort into app delivery and making it easy for any user to "consume" the apps. Open the door to personal PC's and consider releasing control of the desktop to improve staff engagement (whilst having some ability to protect the user from themselves).

SSD's are an interesting point and when the price point is there it will kill the thin client advantage of "no moving parts".


I would say the new big "thin" thing by 2012 will be something like Microsoft Windows 7 Starter Edition where you get an inexpensive Windows OS but without the management headaches of XP Embedded edition as seen on many thin devices these days.

The Starter Edition OS will let users connect to XenApp, XenDesktop, VMware View, etc but will allow you to install/push out agents the normal way, whichever that may be for your office.

Netbooks with Starter Edition may be the next replacement for thin devices. Thin devices haven't been able to meet the price point that makes sense compared to regular desktops, but the next netbook technology may be able to give a significant price value compared with standard notebooks.