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The Basics of Thin Client Hardware

written by: Bruce Tyson•edited by: Bill Fulks•updated: 7/26/2011

Thin client computing offers benefits on multiple levels. It presents small-footprint computing that is easy on the environment, but big on economy, performance and security. Thin clients benefit everyone - a good reason for their growing popularity.

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    Defining the Thin Client

    Hpt5700 As part of the server-based computing model, thin client hardware consists of a basic computer that has little or no local storage. Thin clients rely on an embedded operating system to boot and to connect to a host server. Once connected, the thin client runs applications, prints and operates on files as though it were a traditional computer. The difference is that the server performs all computing and only uses the thin client to accept input and to display information.

    Most thin clients use a form of Windows or Linux to boot, but some use proprietary manufacturer operating systems. Once booted, thin clients connect to their host server which sets up user profiles, applications and resources that allow the thin client to act as though it is a typical workstation.

    Thin clients have no moving parts. Because they are low power units, they don't need any fans. Similarly, most use solid state storage rather than hard drives. Because thin clients normally have little storage capacity, this allows administrators to easily disable them if they get lost or stolen.

    Traditional computers can sometimes act like thin clients by using special applications or boot ROMs. This way, administrators can convert obsolete computers rather than discard them.

    Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Vidarlo

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    Finding a Thin Client

    Although increasing in popularity, thin client computers rarely appear in a consumer-oriented electronics store. However, major computer manufacturers offer thin client solutions either directly from their web sites or through online superstores.

    Wyse

    A pioneer of the so-called "dumb" terminals of the past, Wyse has unique credentials in the thin client arena. These units run various operating systems including Wyse ThinOS, Windows CE, Linux, Windows XPe, Windows Embedded 2009, and Windows Embedded 7. Wyse also sells its "zero client" solution which consists of thin client designs for a single, specific environment.

    Like other thin client vendors, Wyse has several ultra mobile laptop thin clients that help extend the benefits of the thin client to workers who travel a lot.

    HP

    Zero clients, flexible thin clients and traditional thin clients from HP offer solutions for companies operating in virtual environments. These computers run HP's own ThinPro OS or a variety of Microsoft operating systems. HP offers three separate tiers of thin clients, helping IT professionals to match the power and flexibility of their thin clients to their company needs.

    HP offers a mobile thin client that provides high security and mobility for workers who travel a lot or telecommute. The HP mobile thin client looks like a standard laptop, but comes with a very low total cost of ownership. It runs either Windows 2009 Embedded Standard or Windows Embedded Standard 7 to boot and connect to server resources.

    Dell

    Dell has two OptiPlex thin client products that are fully customizable from the factory. These units come equipped with the Dell thin client OS or with Microsoft or Linux operating systems. Dell also offers a 13" Latitude thin client notebook computer that is perfect for mobile and remote workers.

    Thin client emulation

    Software applications and third party thin client kits help computer owners use traditional computers as thin clients. Although this approach to thin client computing sacrifices most thin client benefits, such applications introduce important flexibility into the workplace.

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    Trends in Thin Client Computing

    The history of thin clients reveals that they are traditionally reserved for the business world. Now, thin clients are rapidly becoming a tool in the hands of consumers. In the form of smartphones and ultra-mobile tablets, thin clients now rival traditional laptop and desktop computers as the consumer platform of choice. Rather than hosting applications and data, these devices use apps that load via wireless networks and store much of their data in the cloud.

    Adding to these alternative platforms, Google now offers its Chrome operating system as the first major instant-on consumer computing solution. Computers running Chrome OS store all program and user data online, meaning that the devices are literally interchangeable.

    Introducing the Chromebook

    Unlike other netbook or notebook computers, Chromebooks are thin client devices that depend entirely on their Internet connections to access applications and their data. These products may be the first consumer-oriented thin clients to gain traction in the market. Because so little information resides on Chromebooks, they are easily interchangeable. This means that if a device is lost or stolen, a user can instantly replace it with a different Chromebook. To protect their data, all users have to do is change their online passwords using a different computer.

    As demonstrated by the Chromebook, the future of computing seems firmly in the hands of the thin client. Businesses and individuals should start planning ways to use thin client hardware so they are not left behind.

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