Next Generation Thin Clients – Cheaper, Faster, Better

The cost of a VDI desktop dropped again last week with the release of a new low-cost thin clients that increasingly blur the boundaries between the cost of physical and virtual desktops, creating new opportunities for growth in a market segment that is struggling to reach more than 5% of enterprise desktops.

Not that this should come as any great surprise; the announcement at Citrix Synergy in Barcelona last year that Citrix was working to develop a reference architecture to support the implementation of HDX system-on-a-chip (S0C) hardware made it abundantly clear that change was coming, the only question was just how big a change would this entail. At the Synergy keynote on Wednesday, Citrix CEO Mark Templeton suggested that the launch of the first HDX-on-a-Chip would result in a reduction in price of about 50% from $250 for a HDX Ready thin client down to a new low of $125. in what must be a first for  a Synergy keynote, Templeton majorly understated the case. Not so much by suggesting that the next generation of thin clients devices would be less than $125, but more that the size of the reduction would be only 50% – most fully speced  thin clients today cost significantly more than the $250. Not that you will hear anyone complaining, a HDX Ready thin client for only $125 puts this class of device on a par with street prices look for in an entry-level device just one month ago.

Texas Instruments and NComputing were announced as the two launch partners for HDX SoC last year, and since then  Since then, the Citrix SoC initiative has welcomed new partners HiSilicon and Marvell. At first glance NComputing may not have appeared an obvious choice, its name not being  widely known outside of education circles in the US. However, NComputing is today the third largest thin client vendor in the world (based on sales volume) after only Wyse (now part of Dell) and HP, with more than 50,000 customers and 20 million daily users in 140 countries.   NComputing’s extensive experience of SoC design (the HDX SoC design represents the third generation of NComputing’s Numo SoC family), as well the fact that it is helmed by former Citrix VP Raj Dhingra probably contributed significantly to Citrix’s decision to partner with NComputing here.  Along with the Numo 3, NComputing has released its new N-Series thin clients. These are the first devices that NComputing has released data targeted specifically at mainstream enterprise adoption, and with this in mind NComputing has done much to improve the overall look of the hardware, compared to its older budget priced devices.

Available in two configurations; the N400 is an entry-level solution supporting a single 1920 x 1080 display which is supports server-side rendering only. The N500 provides improved multi-media support including full 1080p video, client side rendering, a second 1920 x 1080 display, and optional factory installed Wi-Fi. Both models provide  smart card support, analog audio in and out ports, four USB 2.0 ports, VESA mount and operate at less than 5 W.  Prices for the N-Series thin clients range from$99 for the N 400, up to $160 for the Wi-Fi equipped N 500.

Also part of the HDX SoC program is the HP t410; an all in one zero client that consumes only 13 W and can be run using Power over Ethernet. Delivering a 18.5″ monitor with inbuilt thin client on just 13 W is stretching the boundaries of what is technically possible today, requiring HP to pare down the t410 down to the bone to meet its power budget. HP chose the original lower power PoE specification which offers 15 W at the switch but when taking distribution losses into account provides an assurance of only 12.95 W at the device. HP could have used the higher power PoE+ specification that offers a more generous 25.5 W, however wisely chose to stick with the original PoE specification due to the much larger number of installed network switches supporting the original specification. The t410 is powered by an ARM Cortex-A8 processor from Texas Instruments, which has been used in the first Apple iPad, the Apple iPhone 4, and many other mobile devices.  The key technology that be needed to deliver the t410 was a sophisticated multiply-reflective screen filer develop in conjunction with 3M, that maximizes brightness for minimal energy consumption. 3M is deploying the zero clients in its own factory for use as part of production. The only downside of this technology is that with only 13 W to play with HP had to make some compromises.   The t410 has 4 USB ports, but these are limited to just 100mA, and there is VGA-out port to support a second monitor because that would have taken it over budget. Even with the3M screen filter, brightness is limited to 200 NITS, low in contrast to most current LCD monitors. However, even here HP has pulled out all the stops, the t410 has power sensing features that can increase screen brightness if more power is available to to a shorter cable run, or if a PoE+ spec. switch is used.

For locations where PoE is not available, HP includes a 25 W power brick, which has the added advantage of allowing a full brightness screen, as well as removing the 100 mW limits from the USB ports.

Power over Ethernet may not at first glance appear to be worth the extra effort, however it offers substantial advantages in many areas. Education is an obvious example; avoiding the cost of retrofitting older classrooms with power to every desk compared to the cost of running a Cat 5 cable provides an immediate benefit which could well justify the lock-in of a PoE powered thin client. Developing markets are another key area where deskside power may not always be available. Less common but just as valuable would be the use of this technology in disaster relief scenarios. Where reliable power and IT support services are not available, deploying a temporary command center using PoE driven endpoints coupled with cloud hosted apps could literally be a lifesaver.

This is not the only innovation that HP has introduced in the t410. As previously hinted at, the t410 supports multiple remote display protocols controlled by a DSP that can be reconfigured on the fly to support RDP, RemoteFX, HDX, or PCoIP.  So far, the t410 is the only HP thin client that supports this technology, but HP suggested that new thin clients offering support for this technology would be available in the future. It is clear that the t410 is not for everyone; the limited screen size and low brightness will be a problem for some, while its high price compared to conventional thin clients will mean that it will struggle as a straight PC replacement. However even with a list price of $429 the operational benefits and low power consumption should result in a positive return on investment compared to previous generation thin client and LCD monitor combinations.

Also joining the HDX-on-a-Chip initiative are Atrust Computer, Centerm Information and ThinLinX Pty Ltd, with Samsung promising delivery of its own HDX-on-a-Chip SyncMaster cloud display in Q3 2012.

While the Citrix lead HDX-on-a-Chip initiative claimed the largest share of announcements, it isn’t the only game in town. Devon IT offered new ARM-based thin clients in fact are not reliant on the Citrix reference architecture.

Devon IT’s  new FX1 is the first thin client to be announced that will be available with Windows RT, the ARM-only edition of Windows 8. While final pricing for the FX1 has not been announced, the availability of a Windows RT-based version makes the sale price of secondary importance to the long-term savings offered by Microsoft’s decision to exempt Windows RT from the need to provide a separate Windows VDA license.  Microsoft’s continued shortsightedness when it comes to licensing Windows in VDI environments could generate huge returns for Devon IT here. Service providers looking to offer VDI on demand no longer have to worry about license management, instead all they need do is equip their customers with a Windows RT-based FX1, and they are in business. Even better, anyone using this hardware-based endpoint solution can reassign licenses almost overnight instead of having to wait 90 days to reassign a soft VDA license.

Thin client leader Wyse Technologies also took advantage of Citrix Synergy to announce the successor to its market-leading Xenith zero client. The predictably named Xenith 2 is an incremental advance from the original Xenith and Xenith Pro thin clients, delivering 30% better performance while at the same time achieving lower power consumption at only 7 W when running and 2 W on standby. Wyse claim that the Xenith 2 boots and log into a Citrix XenDesktop session in less than 10 seconds. Wyse has updated the Xenith 2 to support the latest HDX enhancements, including HDX-multistream Citrix’s ICA QoS implementation. When Wyse first started work on the Xenith 2 it fell outside the boundaries of the Citrix  HDX-on-a-Chip initiative initiative. Why is having developed the technology in-house in partnering with Marvell. Now however, with the Marvell ARM SoC included in the Citrix HDX Ready SoC program, the Xenith 2 falls within the Citrix HDX Ready SoC program, giving wise the engineering benefits of being tightly tied into the development of the platform, and the marketing benefits of being part of the latest HDX Ready program. The Xenith 2 also includes new WAN support features with local echo and bandwidth reporting providing remote and at home users the best possible performance.

it remains to be seen how Dell’s acquisition of Wyse will impact either company, Dell has indicated that for the moment it will keep Wyse at arms length, allowing it to continue doing what it does best, while making a commitment to enable both companies learn from each other’s strengths.