Zero Clients: Can IT Infrastructure Ever Be 'Too Thin'?

Ann All
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When Is It Right for a Business to Consider Desktop Virtualization?

Tips for determining whether desktop virtualization is right for your business.

Although it hasn't taken off like server or storage virtualization, desktop virtualization is on the radar of a significant number of CIOs, I found when I interviewed Gartner VP and analyst James Browning about midmarket CIOs' experiences with and future plans for virtualization.


Many folks introduce desktop virtualization with the intent of migrating at least some of their users from PCs to thin clients, which use far less power than traditional PCs and cut support costs because they don't need to be touched by humans nearly as often. While these benefits aren't insignificant, they don't yield the kind of hard, fast ROI many organizations got by virtualizing other aspects of their infrastructures. The incremental nature of these savings, along with possible pushback from users who may not take to thin clients, means desktop virtualization will be adopted far more slowly than server or storage virtualization, Browning told me.


Still, there's no question interest in desktop virtualization is growing. So naturally vendors are rushing in to capitalize on this interest, writes Tom Flynn, a technologist in HP's Personal Systems Group, in a Forbes column. When this happens, it usually creates plenty of confusion.


Some vendors, notably Pano Logic, Digi, Wyse, N-Computing and Teradici, are introducing even more stripped-down desktop devices called zero clients. After a fair amount of poking around online, I learned zero clients require even less local processing power and locally-installed software than thin clients. A true zero client is little more than a monitor. keyboard and mouse connected directly to the data center, with no operating system, CPU and memory at the user's desk. They cost less and consume less power than thin clients.


Yet folks should be aware of some possible zero client gotchas before assuming that the old saw about never being too thin or too rich applies to IT infrastructure, cautions Flynn. Three he mentions:

  • Some zero clients promise completely hands-off operation but will require some firmware upgrades when virtualization vendors like VMWare and Citrix update their software.
  • Some zero clients require additional management tools beyond what organizations already use to manage existing PCs and thin clients.
  • Some zero clients use a single type of virtualization software and protocol, typically either VMware's PCoIP protocol for VMware View or Citrix's HDX solution. So if you decide to switch virtualization software, you may need new zero clients as well.


Flynn suggests thin clients are a better fit than zero clients for organizations that haven't yet settled on a long-term virtualization strategy. Other good candidates for thin clients are organizations that need VPN connectivity for mobile workers or those whose users require more functionality than is typically available via a zero client (wider range of USB devices such as speakers or headsets, uploading or downloading files, using Flash-based applications, listening to audio files).


Since Flynn name-checked some vendors in his column, he got several comments refuting some of his claims. It sounds like many of the shortcomings, including the need for firmware upgrades, are being addressed as zero clients mature. One commenter also accuses Flynn of being misleading, pointing out that few thin client vendors also support both VMWare's PCoIP and Citrix's HDX protocols.


Still, I think it's hard to quibble with Flynn's advice to thoroughly examine both short- and long-term goals and requirements for desktop virtualization. Vendors including Cisco, VMWare and Oracle are introducing management tools they promise will ease the transition to desktop virtualization, as IT Business Edge's Art Cole wrote last month.


Perhaps the most important thing to remember about virtualization, desktop or otherwise, is that it's not a panacea. As Art noted yesterday, smart organizations will realize virtualization introduces new management complexities (thus the need for all those new tools). And they'll try to envision how virtualization will interact with other emerging trends like unified communications and solid-state technology. He wrote:

First, virtualization is an impressive development, but it is by no means the final piece of the IT puzzle. And two, there are numerous ways in which virtual deployments can actually make things worse, particularly if you have an incomplete vision of where your data center stands now and where you want to take it tomorrow.

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