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Reconsidering the Wisdom of Thin Clients

FOR MANY YEARS, vendors and others have touted thin-client computers as a highly secure, less-expensive alternative to desktop PCs. These devices, like the dumb terminals of yesteryear, don’t hold programs or content. Instead, they reach out to a central server for applications and data. They have always had a solid market niche, but more companies are now considering them as a way to simplify administration, enhance security, and reduce power costs.

Rising concerns over data loss have increased the product’s popularity in recent years as have advances in server-based software, which have improved the user experience. “Ten years ago I was telling people [thin clients] are more reliable, secure, and energy efficient,” says Jeff McNaught, vice president of marketing at San Jose-based thin-client-maker Wyse Technology. “They make more sense now than ever.”

Security has always been a top selling point. “The one sure way to know you’re compliant is to keep data off desktops and laptops,” says McNaught.

Traditionally, the products have been most widely used for task-based jobs, such as in call centers or airline terminals, says Bob O'Donnell, program vice president, clients and displays, at IDC. But their use is spreading to company departments, such as legal and human resources, requiring greater security.

The newest iteration of this product is the thin laptop, which vendors started rolling out over the last few years. Similar to most notebooks, they provide Wi-Fi connectivity and sometimes a cellular Web connection.

Firms are also looking at the products for the energy savings, according to a recent Forrester Research report. Compared with their larger PC peers, thin clients, which lack hard drives and expanding slots, draw less power. When deployed in large scale, thin clients saved about 24 percent in power, according to a Forrester test.

The devices are also more reliable and easier to maintain than their PC counterparts, says McNaught. It’s easier to backup data, and there are fewer hardware crashes, he says.

Today, most of the cost of PCs involves upgrading, patching, and repairing, but that cost is greatly reduced for thin clients. And, according to Forrester, they typically last about three years longer than their PC equivalents.

Even with some positive market developments, however, some thin-client characteristics that have hampered its growth remain. One is the lack of end-user control over applications and functions. This has been changing in recent years, with vendors providing added functions such as USB drives. Certain applications, such as those requiring advanced graphics or video, also tend to run prohibitively slowly on thin clients.