What Are Thin Clients and Zero Clients?

Virtualization has become one of the most important trends in business computing thanks to the efficiency and cost effectiveness it presents. When it comes to building a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), you have a lot of options at your disposal, whether you’re ultimately relying on cloud-based services or on-premises hardware.

While a powerful server system is typically required to host virtual desktop environments, you have plenty of choices when it comes to the devices you use to access and use those environments. Since all computing work is taken care of by the server, the requirements of the client device tend to be minimal, hence the rise of thin clients and zero clients in the workplace.

Thick Clients

When discussing thin and zero clients, it’s perhaps best to start off with how they compare to traditional desktop computers. In this case, we may refer to conventional computers, such as desktop workstations and laptops, as thick or ‘fat’ clients. These are machines designed to do all the computing work themselves, whether that’s raw processing power, mass storage, or anything else. There’s nothing stopping you from using thick clients for desktop virtualization, but doing so defeats the purpose of virtualization in the first place.

Since a thick client is a computer running thin client software to access remote desktop environments, you don’t get to take advantage of the greatly decreased hardware requirements of virtualization. Companies typically want to reduce their overheads by using cheap, barebones computers rather than a network of expensive workstations. Another important consideration is that thick clients have hard drives, which potentially make them less secure than other options. In other words, a thick client presents another attack vector for hackers and malicious software.

Thin Clients

For the most part, thin clients are complete computing systems that provide some degree of functionality by themselves rather than being completely dependent on a remote server. They are low-cost computers sporting a minimal set of features and specifications; basically, just enough hardware to run an operating system. As such, they are heavily reliant on a remote server for their computational roles, and they carry out very little computing work by themselves. As the name suggests, thin clients also tend to be very small, featuring low-level form factors.

Unsurprisingly, thin clients are much cheaper than full-fledged desktop PCs, but they’re still able to perform most everyday computing tasks, such as web browsing, instant messaging or word processing, all by themselves. They’re simple machines that typically don’t provide many upgrade options, although they do come with several USB ports and other basic connectivity options for attaching a monitor, keyboard, mouse and headphones or speakers. Many thin clients, particularly those designed exclusively for cloud computing, also feature built-in monitors.

Zero Clients

Zero clients, as the name suggests, are the most minimalistic end-user computing terminals on the market. They’re rapidly gaining ground in the business world owing to their very low cost, minimal maintenance requirements, and easy deployment. Zero clients are tiny barebones machines that, unlike thin clients, do not provide any functionality by themselves. In fact, they don’t even contain an operating system or any writable storage media. Instead, they feature a lightweight firmware that exists solely for initializing network communications and decoding display information.

Because they contain no storage, zero clients are inherently more secure than any of the other options. They’re highly integrated and purpose-built, and their sole purpose is to transmit pixels rather than data. As such, all data, including all your apps and the operating system itself, are hosted on a remote server, thus greatly reducing potential attack vectors. Zero clients are also very small, typically weighing no more than a large smartphone. Nonetheless, many zero clients also feature proprietary designs, which means you could run into vendor lock-ins.

There’s no debating the advantages of technology in the workplace, but it’s not always easy to choose a solution that presents a great compromise between affordability and functionality. If you’re looking to get more out of your existing infrastructure with virtualization, contact us today.


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