Seven Deadly Sins When Deploying Thin Clients

For the majority of users, the traditional Enterprise Desktop PC can be said to be on borrowed time. Your own disk resource, dedicated CPU and memory – a boon when mainframe time was expensive and installations were few – has become a support imposition; costly to power, a target for thieves, and ultimately expensive to maintain. With marketing machines re-heralding the benefits of centralisation – be it Presentation or Desktop Virtualization – removing that Enterprise Desktop PC for a device with fewer components to fail, lower power consumption, longer refresh cycles indeed, a lower cost of  ownership, appears to be a far more prudent use of refresh budgets.

Obviously Thin Client marketing departments will herald such benefits. Yet, there is no such thing as a free lunch: what, if any, are the pitfalls of replacing an Enterprise PC with a Thin Client device?

Here are seven common issues which, if left unchecked, can significantly impact the success of a migration from traditional desktops to Thin Clients.  Failure to realise these sins, while not deadly, can severely impact on the cost savings that you’re attempting to realise.

7: Multimedia capability
Thin client performance historically grinds to a crawl under even modest multi-media usage. Audio and video delivered from a Server Based Computing environment, be that hosted desktops or Presentation Virtualization, to a thin device can be of poor quality. Thin client support for bi-directional audio, let alone video was poor as the display protocols – typically Citrix’s Independent Computing Architecture (ICA) and Microsoft’s Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) – were not optimised for such real-time traffic. Moreover, these remote display protocols did not support high definition images or multi-monitor environments.

If your environment relies on high quality video and audio – it’s unlikely you would have been able to implement a thin client solution.

Yet, there have been great strides in improving thin-client multimedia capability. Wyse, with their TCX Multimedia software  have focused on streamlining the delivery of the multimedia stream to the local client for a rich user experience within a thin computing architecture. Citrix recently announced their High Definition User Experience Technologies (HDX), which offer real-time audio and video and higher graphics capabilities,  not only for their XenDesktop solution, but their XenApp range for Presentation virutalization. Quest Software have their Experience Optimised Protocol (EOP).

Moving to a thin client environment will obviously mean your end-device is different from a traditional PC. But if properly anticipated, not having the same capabilities of a PC need not severely impact a Thin Client roll-out. New services that support real-time video, high quality images, even multi-monitor support are now available and deliverable with Thin Client architectures.

The important consideration with delivering multimedia capability to a thin client solution is to remember to include it in your purchasing criteria and ensure that the correct teams review the capabilities of the solutions you consider.

6: Local Device Access
As with multi-media, thin client devices have a reputation for poor support for local device access – historically because the centralised services did not readily support connecting local devices reliably from the end device.

Does your environment have a number of PCs that connect to local devices: typically this will include USB devices such as cameras, scanners, video capture devices, remote drives and PDA devices?

Again, as with multi-media, vendors have worked hard to provide solutions for thin client devices. Citrix HDX makes USB support far more seamless than previous versions of XenApp; Wyse’s TCX USB Virtualizer can be used to better support USB devices connecting to Thin Clients.

As with multi-media, be sure to capture and review your local device access requirements in order to include them in your purchasing criteria. When trialling the devices, remember to review how successful device connection/disconnection is and how long and the reliability of the transfer of data.

5: Network Resilience
Thin-client computing relies on constant connectivity between the server and the client. If that connectivity is broken, clients cannot continue working, although their current session will remain in the state it was in at the time the link was lost.

Therefore, LAN/WAN resilience is vital. In high-availability environments, best-practice recommends that alternate path and supplier routing, particularly for WAN links, exists. This may increase initial costs for deployment over a fat-client environment, as you have to initiate links. Yet, since each of network links using a centralised service such as VDI or Presentation Virtualisation do not need as much bandwidth as traditional PCs, ongoing costs can be lower.

4: User Acceptance
A major, yet often unexpected, challenge to deploying thin-clients is managing user acceptance before, during and after deployment.

A successful centralisation deployment will introduce a greater level of management and control. Outside a tightly managed environment, users will have had access to their floppy and CD drives. They may well have had the ability to install software on their own PCs or change screen savers. Whilst this approach can make the employee feel empowered, its not so great for productivity. When the change causes the PC to crash, who fixes it, and when.

A top-of-the-line computer is often a status symbol in a business environment. Users can be reluctant to switch to Thin Clients, where not only they will have less control but bragging rights can be severely curtailed. Things like personal software and screen savers may be great for employee relations, but they are a burden on productivity and a route for computer viruses and worms.

Users will undoubtedly miss the familiarity and power that their PC provided. There will be claims from “power users” for a high-end PC to perform their job function.

It is useful to accept the fact that a pure thin-client environment might be ideal, but not possible: bear in mind your virtualisation solution may not virtualize all devices. That said, a Gartner Group study stated the total cost of ownership per year and per user for a desktop computer was $5,400—which includes training and deployment costs—compared to $2,200 per Thin Client.

User acceptance must begin at the top – management buy-in, and support of, a thin-client deployment is essential. An excellent way to manage change is to invlove the user community from the start of the project. Actively have users assist in evaluating devices and accommodate their feedback. Often, when presented with thinner devices users appreciate the faster start-up time, increased desk space, the quieter working environment, and the ease of replacement.

3: Printing
If deploying a Presentation Server virtualisation solution such as Citrix’s XenApp the complexity of supporting a number of printer drivers in a multi-user environment can have an impact on stability.

Depending on the thin client network’s design and set-up, what should be a simple task of sending a document to a printer can adversely affect other users on the network. A move from a distributed desktop environment with local resources to a centralised thin-client environment can put a severe load on regional or branch office network links and the time to print a document.

It is not unusual for a thin client environment to be introduced to such environment to generate cost savings from reduced network bandwidth charges yet, failure to consider printing needs can severely impact on a project’s success. Poor bandwidth can lead to slow or even failed printing and indeed can have the knock on effect of impacting user connections to the extent that large print requests effectively deny desktop services to a remote office.

A number of vendors offer solutions that can effectively manage Thin Client printing requirements. Triceart, for example, have their Simplify Printing Bundle to improve printing performance, and the Screwdrivers solution can provide a solution for problem free printing. Other solutions include Quest Software’s Print-IT, or UniPrint’s Uniprint VDI Edition.

As with multi-media, and local device access – there are products that can enhance a Thin Client printing service and help to deliver an improved user experience – it is understanding your printing environment that is key to delivering a successful solution.

2: Mobile Users
Moving to a thin client environment can be greatly beneficial for desktop users. Their centralised service can be better maintained, so more consistent, and in  turn more productive. Their end devices less complex, faster, quieter. But, what about remote users? Potentially you still have to manage mobile devices: and a mobile device is often more costly than a desktop. When you consider a laptop is a roaming asset, not only in terms of a higher ‘failure’/loss rate and more demanding use – but also in taking expensive silos of data out of your offices and on the road for periods of time.

The technologies that support thin clients can be deployed to a variety of devices – and indeed there are thin client mobile devices. Wyse have their Wyse X90 and Wyse X90e mobile thin clients; HP have their 4410t.

Obviously, such devices are only effective for ‘on-line’ use – if you have truly roaming users who need to work off-line such thin client mobile devices are not useful. If your environment needs to continue to use ‘traditional’ laptop devices – don’t forget to include them from the cost model and support requirement of deployment and management tools.

However, it is not unusal to consider a ‘traditional’ laptop as the ultimate replacement for a desktop PC. The latest laptops do have a very low form factor: rather than a ‘thin client device’ provide users with a laptop or financial resources to purchase their own device (also known as Bring Your Own Computer) and connect that to the corporate network. While this may indeed be a very agile solution, you need to consider who is responsible for these devices; do you provide a docking station for users in office; is corporate data allowed to be stored unencrypted on the device for off-line working? Who pays for and install encryption services?

Laptop use allows for flexibility – but does remove data from the office network; and indeed is ultimately as, if not more, expensive to maintain than Enterprise Desktops. While thin-client laptops do exist, they rely on good quality network links and don’t provide for off-line use.

1: Cost savings
Effectively, this is the sum of parts. Through increased security, reduced energy consumption and centralised management a Thin Client device can have a lower cost of ownership than an Enterprise Desktop.

Any Presentation or Desktop Virtualization project, at its heart, is about managing your corporate resources better and releasing spend on unnecessary effort. While there are energy and maintenance savings in removing an Enterprise PC and replacing it with a thin client, removing an Enterprise PC and replacing with it with a Thin Client device is not a cost saving exercise if done in isolation. In addition, before you invest in a services to support your Thin Client solution, consider all the costs behind moving towards a virtual desktop deployment. Microsoft Licensing must be purchased, as well as the VDI connection broker solution.

At an extreme, virtualising every desktop, as you would virtualize a server, and replacing each PC with a thin client will not save money. The capital cost of implementing that project will far outweigh the year on year savings of managing that centralised environment. Therefore, it is also useful to consider the cost of replacing each and every Enterprise Desktop and when it is useful to do so.

There are solutions to convert existing Enterprise PCs to thinner devices. For example, Igel have a low cost PC to TC conversion card; Companies such as 2X and ThinLaunch produce tools to convert existing Enterprise Desktops into tightly managed Thin Client style devices. While as expensive in terms of power and heat re-purposing Enterprise desktops devices as thin clients, either through hardware or by software solutions, will extend the lifetime of an Enterprise Desktop device.

A Thin Client is cheaper than an Enterprise Desktop PC, a Thin-Client solution can realise cost savings over the life-time of the service. But, there are significant costs associated in creating that environment. Centralised services, licensing, device replacement. Don’t rely solely on vendors cost calculators to drive your project – examine your own environment and be willing to re-use and re-cycle.

While the traditional desktop PC may be on borrowed time it supports services, such as local device access or multi-media, that have become business critical and on par with the ability to crunch numbers, or produce nicely formatted letters.

We are undoubtedly at the cusp of a major shift in the paradigm of how organisations deploy a worskpace to allow a user to work with their data. It looks like the keyboard, mouse and screen are still with us – but the controlling unit has an increasingly reduced role. The need for the power – not only in terms of processing, but in terms of heat and electricity – of an Enterprise Desktop will reduce as desktop virtualisation and web based applications come ever more to the fore.

While Thin Clients can, and do, readily replace Enterprise Desktops, there are major considerations to be made in their deployment. Obvious candidates such as multi-media, local device access, network access and mobile support, through to user acceptance and printing are often overlooked at the start of a project. It’s useful to note replacing a hefty PC with a small box could equate to a better managed PC re-provisioned with a thinner OS or PCI card. But ultimately, focus on understanding where where your costs are now and how you can best use the investment in deploying a Thin Client solution to reduce those costs in the coming years to realise savings on your enterprise workspace spend.

Here are seven common oversights which, if left unchecked, can significantly impact the success of a migration from traditional desktops to thinner devices.  Failure to realise these sins, while not deadly, can severely impact on the cost savings that you’re attempting to realise.