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What purpose do thin client OSes serve?

Thin clients can act as hubs for virtual desktop OSes or run their own OSes locally. These OSes are made to support a centralized computing model, which offers many benefits.

Thin clients are a useful tool for desktop virtualization. But what role do their OSes play in a virtual desktop environment?

When running a virtualized environment, endpoint devices are necessary to enable connection to the virtual desktop. Zero clients and thin clients are designed to do just that.

Zero clients have no local OS and no local hard drive or moving parts, but they do enable a VDI connection. Dedicated thin clients and the OSes that can run on them provide various benefits. Having an OS on a thin client offers more than a connection mechanism through specific protocols and a user interface. It optimizes resources and helps the organization streamline its IT operations.

What are the different types of thin client OSes?

Compared to PCs, thin client hardware tends to be lower cost, less resource-hungry and easily scalable so that organizations can increase or reduce the number of devices as needed. To repurpose and redeploy otherwise obsolete devices, IT departments can install lightweight thin client OSes, such as the Stratodesk NoTouch OS, on older hardware with minimal memory or CPU resources. Since they require fewer resources, they usually need fewer updates and have lower maintenance costs. Additionally, their longer lifespan and ease of management contribute to cost savings.

Vendors provide different thin client OSes, with some being specifically for proprietary thin client hardware and firmware, such as HP ThinPro OS, that focus solely on connecting to a specific VDI platform such as VMware Horizon or Citrix Virtual Apps and Desktops. Microsoft has designed some versions of Windows specifically for various embedded systems, including thin clients. Windows 10 IoT Enterprise and Windows Embedded Standard, for example, are both part of Microsoft's embedded operating systems product group.

There are also thin client OSes based on Linux distributions customized for thin client hardware, such as ThinStation and Igel OS. These systems can use local device hardware such as network and USB ports as well as CD drives to access device peripherals.

Some organizations develop their own custom thin client OSes and tailor them to their specific needs, incorporating elements from various open source or proprietary platforms. Each type of thin client OS offers its own set of features, optimizations and compatibility with different VDI tools. The choice of a thin client OS often depends on factors such as hardware compatibility, management capabilities, security features and integration with the desired VDI platform.

A comparison between PCs and thin clients.
Thin clients provide several management benefits for IT.

How can thin client OSes improve virtual desktop environments?

A thin client operating system works to optimize the VDI in several ways. These OSes are lightweight and require minimal local CPU, memory and storage resources. As a result, older or less powerful hardware can efficiently connect to and interact with the virtual desktop environment hosted on servers or in the cloud. In a virtual desktop environment, most processing tasks occur on the server side rather than on the thin client device. The OS offloads the computational workload to the server or the cloud, reducing the strain on the client-side hardware and improving overall performance.

From a networking point of view, thin client OSes minimize network bandwidth usage. They typically use efficient protocols to transmit data between the virtual desktop host and the client, optimizing data transfer and reducing network congestion.

Another advantage of thin clients with an OS is the ability to manage them centrally. IT administrators can centrally manage and update the OS configurations, applications and security measures across multiple thin client devices, reducing administrative overhead. By optimizing resources, centralizing processing, improving security and simplifying management, thin client OSes improve the efficiency of virtual desktop environments.

Two key management features are centralized policy enforcement and remote monitoring capabilities, which offer a range of additional benefits.

Centralized policy enforcement

Admins can enforce IT policies and compliance measures uniformly across all thin client devices. This ensures consistent implementation of organizational policies regarding data protection, usage guidelines and regulatory compliance.

Each type of thin client OS offers its own set of features, optimizations and compatibility with different VDI tools.

Software deployment and updates are also easier to handle as a result. IT can simultaneously deploy software applications, upgrades and patches across all thin client devices from a central location. This establishes uniformity in software versions and security standards.

In general, centralized management can strengthen device and data security. IT can manage and enforce security measures such as user access controls, encryption settings, antivirus updates and firewall configurations centrally, ensuring a secure environment across all thin clients. Thin clients also reduce the attack surface on the local client side, as data resides on the server.

Remote monitoring capabilities

Centralized management tools enable real-time monitoring of thin client devices. This offers both remote troubleshooting and asset management benefits.

IT teams can identify and troubleshoot problems and perform diagnostics without physically accessing individual devices. Remote control capabilities also improve the user experience by making it easier for support staff to provide technical assistance to end users.

Additionally, centralized management facilitates asset tracking and inventory management for thin client devices. IT can monitor hardware specifications, device health and usage statistics from a single interface.

Helen Searle-Jones holds a group head of IT position in the manufacturing sector and has more than 25 years of experience with managing a wide range of Microsoft technologies in the cloud and on premises.

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