Thin Clients vs. Zero Clients: What’s the Better VDI Solution?

Thin Clients vs. Zero Clients: What’s the Better VDI Solution?

November 20

Virtualization has been an ongoing topic here on the StorageCraft blog. Last summer I wrote a four-part series that addressed various topics relating to virtual storage and virtualization in general. More recently my fellow blogger Contel Bradford gave you five good reasons to adopt desktop virtualization.

If you were inspired by Contel’s piece, perhaps you’ve researched VDI options. If so, you probably noticed the two types most commonly mentioned: thin clients and zero clients. In many ways thin clients and zero clients are similar, but what are the differences between the two? More importantly, which of the two types would be best for your IT environment?

The Similarities Between Thin and Zero VDI Clients

After reading several articles and posts about the subject, I emailed my go-to virtualization source, David Marshall, founder of the venerable, to get his take. According to David, thin clients and zero clients are on the rise because both are generally cheaper than thick clients, are simple to install and replace, require less maintenance, and potentially can improve security:

I’ve seen many different definitions for these two client types, which can cause confusion.  But [thin clients and zero clients] have one thing in common. They offload most of the work to back-end servers, and they are usually small, light, and stateless.

By using a thin or zero clients VDI setup, you can avoid that three-year lifecycle refresh on PCs by either repurposing these PCs as terminals or replacing those PCs with cheaper terminals. VDI lets you push out compute resources from a server rather than having to install those resources directly onto the end-user’s device. “Because VDI is leveraging the servers behind the scenes to handle the compute, you’re less likely to need to update or refresh the end point devices,” David explains.

The Differences Between Thin and Zero VDI Clients

Despite the many similarities between thin and zero clients, David points out a few key differences. Thin clients typically use a minimalist operating system like Linux or Windows Embedded. In contrast, zero clients use an onboard processor designed to handle a protocol such as Microsoft RDP, VMware PCoIP, SPICE, which Red Hat has released under an open source license, or Citrix HDX.

Because the decoding and display processes take place on dedicated hardware, zero clients boot up “wicked fast,” require minimal configuration, and tend to be more efficient and secure, David says. And “because they are fine tuned for a specific protocol, zero clients typically offer the end user a more robust video experience,” adds David.

But zero clients have one big drawback, according to David. They are, for the most part, proprietary, which could put you at risk for vendor lock-in. “If a company plans on swapping out protocols or connection brokers, thin clients may prove to be the more flexible option in the end,” David says.

As for choosing the best VDI client, it all depends on your specific needs. If you need the ability to drag and drop a wide range of applications, particularly legacy applications to end users, would like to maintain a truer desktop experience, or you want to avoid vendor lock-in, thin clients may be the better way to go. However, if you need high-quality multimedia support, want to give your workers the flexibility to log into any terminal or other endpoint within your organization, or want to avoid any desktop-side configuration, consider zero clients solutions instead.

Have you had experience with thin or zero clients? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter!

Photo credit: Nick Harris via Flickr