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Thin Client vs. Virtual Desktop

written by: Karishma Sundaram•edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 4/22/2010

Thin clients and virtual desktops are often erroneously considered to be synonymous to each other. This article explores the difference between them more closely.

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    What is a Thin Client?

    The term thin client came about with the rise of client-server architecture. In the architecture model, the client is utilized by an individual user to access functions supported by a server. In short, a substantial portion of certain functionality was carried out by the server, whereas the client was merely used to query the server.

    However, these clients were usually fully-fledged machines, with processing power of their own. As each machine was complete, there were certainly some resources that were going waste, as not every user is able to maximize the resources available to them.

    Thus the concept of a thin client was born – essentially a bare-bones client machine, used to query the server, which in turn does the bulk of the work.

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    A Short Introduction to Virtual Desktops

    Although a virtual desktop can mean a variation of things, in the context of this article, and to be comparable to a thin client, it means that the user computer has a desktop view that is projected remotely from a server. The user machine in question does not have the functionality that it is actually able to use. This functionality, in actuality, is supported by a server.

    The idea behind desktop virtualization is the ability to apportion resources to users as and when they require it. In case of limited resources, it would make sense to grant access to certain resources only as the need arises. The expense in equipping individual machines is then saved, as well as the cost of maintaining many simultaneous connections to the server.

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    The Difference between Thin Clients and Virtual Desktops

    In thin client architecture, the user machines are usually stripped bare of any extraneous trappings, like CD drives or specialized ports. Since most of the work is done by the server, only the most basic of components, like a hard drive, certain amount of main memory and a monitor are usually present.

    However, in the case of desktop virtualization, the user machine is not necessarily a basic configuration. It is invariably the expensive software that is apportioned out to various machines, but the machines themselves are usually full-fledged ones. The users in a desktop virtualization environment are usually the ones that require greater functionality.

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    Desktop Virtualization with Thin Clients

    Although there is a difference between virtual desktops and thin clients, the current trend is to use them in conjunction with each other. Instead of complete user desktops, thin clients are used to radically reduce costs. The advantage is greater management of resources and the ability to monitor resource usage. Additionally, a security factor enters into the picture, since the resources are located centrally.

    The concepts of virtual desktops and thin clients may have started out as independent solutions; however their combined use makes them a compelling and viable alternative to businesses looking to cut down significantly on costs.