Do you really want to manage a fleet of expensive PCs that require ongoing maintenance and troubleshooting? A growing number of businesses are saying no. Instead, they're exploring an alternative to desktops and laptops that can reduce associated hassles and expense. Thin clients give users the familiar experience of working at their own computer, but the stripped-down machines are limited to accessing applications on a server.
As small as a hardcover book, thin clients resemble smart routers. They're loaded with ports for peripherals and powered by lightweight processors and apps (or none at all). The user's monitor and keyboard plug in to the little black box, but they reach and control a remote computer on a server.
Though the market for thin clients is tiny compared to the market for PCs, it has been growing more quickly in the past few years. Some 7.4 million units will sell in 2014, up from 3.7 million in 2010, according to IDC analysts.
A thin client generally houses a small CPU whose software interacts with a remote desktop. A "zero client," such as the one from Pano Logic, fools the virtual machine in a data center into thinking that the device is local, thereby eliminating the need for a local processor or software.
According to Pano Logic, a device isn't a zero client if it has a processor, an OS, and drivers. On the other hand, market leader Wyse sells zero clients with software that it says can help them adapt to future changes in network protocols and security.
Replacing 'thick" clients such as desktop PCs can demand a huge initial effort from an IT department. Once set up, however, thin clients and virtual desktops can reduce operating expenses by 40 percent, according to Wyse.
Tech support pros spend most of their time managing workstations; but with thin clients, a company can focus on running servers or can outsource any heavy lifting to a cloud service. Free of the need to upgrade machines one by one, IT pros can focus on expansion at the server level.
Thin clients are solid-state, so they have no spinning disks to repair--or to protect in hostile environments. If they fail, user data isn't lost--because it lives on the server. Thin clients reduce downtime per user by 79 percent, according to Gartner research.
Since each workstation accesses the same centralized applications, a worker can log in at any terminal rather than being tied to a specific desk. Some thin clients also offer smartphone companion tools for reaching remote virtual desktops.
Among the money-saving environmental benefits is much-reduced energy use: A typical thin client may demand 3 watts as against the 14 watts that even an efficient PC requires. Energy costs for a zero client can be 88 percent less than those for a desktop PC, according to Pano Logic. Without desktops heating up its office, a business's summer cooling costs may drop, too.
If a company commits to these barebones machines, which are supposed to last for up to a decade, it will also also less electronic waste to deal with later.
The major flaw associated with zero clients and thin clients is that a single point of failure on the central system can put all users out of luck. It's up to the system administrator to devise a reliable server redundancy plan.
Another issue is that some employees may prefer the control of customizing and saving their data to a local PC rather than working with remote data and tools. And a thin-client setup is less than ideal for working with bandwidth-intensive video, voice, and graphics.
To decide whether thin clients make sense for your workplace, compare the potential costs of hardware and software licenses and centralized maintenance against what you spend on your current infrastructure.
Case Study: Zero Clients Help Brewer Produce More Beer
Established in 1989, Boulevard Brewing Company is the ninth-largest craft brewery in the United States. The brew house near downtown Kansas City, Missouri produces 148,000 barrels of beer each year.
When the company built a new brew house several years ago, it established a new computer system for managing the brewing process. However, the company was losing as much as $100,000 to beer ingredient spoilage when workstations crashed.
"We had issues with the old system where, if one PC went down, we lost raw materials," says Tony Lux, Boulevard's director of IT.
To address the problems, Boulevard replaced desktop workstations with Pano Logic zero clients. Today 20 Pano virtual desktops are installed throughout the brewery, some of them protected within waterproof cabinets and hooked up to touchscreen monitors.
Each $320 Pano Device can connect with dual monitors, a keyboard, a mouse, and other peripherals, linking users to the computer on a server. The brewery's data center uses VMware ESX hosts to run virtual machines. From the workstations, workers can control brewing, fermentation, filtration, and packaging. They even feed the quantity of ingredients being brewed at the moment into the accounting system.
As a result, workers have many more places where they can access the software to control brewing processes. Before the tech overhaul, plant workers sometimes had to manage the controls from a PC, but then race down to another level of the building to monitor the brewing equipment.
"The Pano Logic zero client devices have saved us time and money by allowing greater flexibility where users can interact with the equipment, and less downtime," Lux said.
Whether they are in the brew house or elsewhere on company property, plant workers can monitor and control the brewing processes. The brewery no longer has to worry about computers locking up and leaving ingredients to sour. It has also saved on equipment costs.
--Case study submitted by Boulevard Brewery
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