What is a Thin Client, and Why Should You Care?

If your business already manages server resources and you’re looking for a simpler endpoint device solution, you may want to consider thin client technology. Thin clients are more flexible, easier to manage, and more affordable than traditional laptop and desktop computers. Especially if your business is getting started with cloud computing, a thin client environment might be a worthwhile investment.

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What is a thin client?

A thin client, or lean client, is a type of computer that relies entirely on its network connection to accomplish tasks. A typical laptop or desktop PC—otherwise known as a thick client or fat client—has the memory, storage, and computing power to run applications and perform computing tasks on its own. A thin client device, on the other hand, functions as a virtual desktop, using the computing power residing on a networked server. These central servers may be on-premises or cloud-based.

Ultrathin clients, also known as zero clients, are similar to thin client computers except they do not contain any local storage. Whereas thin clients maintain a uniquely configured operating system (OS) located in the device’s flash memory, zero clients rely solely on the server’s configuration and resources.

Both desktop and laptop thin clients are available from a wide range of manufacturers. Some specialize in thin client solutions, while others like Dell and HP provide thin client machines alongside thick clients as part of a broader portfolio. 

How does a thin client work?

Thin client computing is all about simplicity. As such, thin clients typically have just enough processing power, information, and hardware to access and use the computing resources of a remote server. Most thin clients can’t run applications or store data or documents on their own. 

Instead, a thin client functions as a virtual desktop to connect to the applications, documents, data, and storage on networked servers, where the actual work is done. Most thin clients run web browsers and/or remote desktop software, such as Microsoft Terminal Services or Citrix XenApp. These client applications make it possible to access centralized server resources.

With thin client architecture, you run the desktop environment on the central server, and remotely display the desktop screens on the client devices. To manage this on the server side, you need a special type of software called a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI). VDI software creates the desktop images, stores them on servers, and sends them over the network to the endpoint devices. Though desktop virtualization is often a technology reserved for larger enterprises, thin clients make it more accessible for small businesses.

Advantages of thin clients

A thin client environment offers a number of benefits to SMBs already managing their own servers.

These types of devices lack their own hard drives, fans, and other moving parts, so they are are smaller, cheaper and simpler for manufacturers to build than traditional laptop or desktop computers—and cheaper for you to buy. Mobile Wyse thin clients from Dell, for example, have a starting price point that is significantly less than most other Dell laptops. Plus, a thin client OS is more lightweight than that of a thick client, so the thin client setup and deployment process is much more efficient.

Thin devices also decrease client maintenance costs and hassles. With fewer moving parts and very little thin client software running on the device, fewer things can go wrong with a thin client, so they’re easier to maintain and fix. If a piece of thin client hardware does fail, you can easily swap in a replacement without losing productivity because employees don’t store any data on their client device.

Since everything is managed, stored, and secured in a central server, thin client systems eliminate the issues of installing, updating and patching applications, backing up files, or scanning for viruses on individual computers. Because employees see and have access only to what they need to do their job, thin client workstations are easier for non-technical people to use.

Read next: A Buyer’s Guide to Small Business Servers

This article was originally published on August 27, 2009. It was updated by Kaiti Norton.

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