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Are the use of thin-clients an appropriate substitute for full workstations? Are they meant for small-company IT use, or are they only useful for large implementations. What are the perks and disadvantages for implementing such a solution in the workplace?

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5 Answers 5

up vote 11 down vote accepted

Major benefits of thin clients include:

  • No need to upgrade machines in order to get more processing power
  • Software upgrades and licenses are handled centrally
  • User data, work products, are all centralized - no need to suffer loss when an indivdual PC goes out
  • Virus issues, and many other factors, are better controlled from a central location
  • Ease of maintenance - replace a single box, no data transfer, done.
  • Much more strict control over employee usage of computer

Disadvantages to using thin clients:

  • Additional network load
  • One server down means reduced performance, and possibly loss of usage, for more than one user
  • If new software is needed, more work to install centrally even if only one user needs it
  • Performance on a per user basis is poor - adequate for normal use, but power users will be very disappointed
  • Certain usage models (compiling, CAD, etc) that require a ton of data simply won't work, or will work very poorly

So a thin client shines in situations where the work done is of a simple office nature (mainframe, data entry, filing, telemarketing, etc) - where performance per PC is low.

In those cases the benefits (lower maintenance, more control) outweigh the slightly higher cost relative to performance - in other words, you're paying a bit more per mip on thin clients than you would for a regular computer, but the regular computer has way more power than what's needed, so you'll still save money going with the thin client.

In cases where the user needs higher performance, regular computers will often be the best bang for the buck. Otherwise you'll end up buying a hugely overpriced server for each few users, plus the thin clients on top of that.

-Adam

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Or, to put it the other way for some startups: User data, work products are all centralized - everyone suffers together when a server dies..... just kidding :-P –  chakrit May 1 '09 at 18:44
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Another point that is really nice is when you got several branch offices, or in my case; stores, that use a very small/simple set of software. Where I work I have 22 different branches running a Citrix solution and not having to deal the headache of fat clients on all those locations and being able to control all users from one interface has been worth a lot. Sure have suffered from the net connection, but overall the net access in Sweden is great so not that big a deal. :) –  gaqzi May 1 '09 at 22:13
    
I do not see why compiling would not work with thin clients. We use a central terminal server for sw development, and it works very well. –  sleske Aug 30 '09 at 23:31
    
@sleske - Compared to compiling on a local machine, it works very poorly. Either that or you have a very simple build setup that requires few disk reads and writes per compile. Or a very, very beefy server. The usage case isn't ideal for a central server. –  Adam Davis Sep 8 '09 at 15:52

We use thin clients for our call center workforce a few years back. The price of them was far less than actual PCs and when one broke we just replaced it with a new one and sent the broken one to the manufacturer. They really shine when you have situation where the end users don't need to do much on their system, like run a call center web-app and a couple other small applications. These systems can really cut the downtime a person has when a system crashes, because instead of trying to fix the old system, and new one replaces it that is just like it.

Places where there are a couple hundred or so identical computers is where it can really pay off. You don't need a lot of techs to repair systems and you can quickly replace a broken machine which happens with some frequency. It also helps a lot where people move frequently. No need to move the machine, because all the machines are alike and all data that would need to be saved is on a central server.

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I worked in a manufacturing environment that would constantly kill normal PCs due to metal dust and heat. Thin-clients were great in this hostile environment because even if one failed, it was easy to replace. Also, power spikes to due high voltage equipment may burn out a thin-client, but none of the data was lost because it was being run from a separate location.

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We've found thin clients to come in to their own in education, where you have to squeeze maximum usage out of your limited budget. Things that can really hammer a thin client server are large graphics editing, video editing and playing chess (although web surfing and even YouTube videos seem to work just fine), so we still use "fat" clients for some tasks, everywhere else thin clients work just fine. We're now looking at putting small servers in classrooms, each handling that classes workstations - gives the teacher control of workstations and means you only have to run one network point per classroom.

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Apart from the obvious management and energy benefits already mentioned, remote places with lousy network connections! Citrix ICA at least is extremely robust against latency and bandwidth issues - improving user experience by a lot over thin or underpowered lines.

Trying to host a local file server, or pull central file server loads to a remote office is definitely harder than using a thin server solution almost regardless of available bandwidth.

A good thin client usually costs around the same as a desktop when it comes to hardware and license purchases, it could actually cost more. The possible savings comes from the easier management and to some degree less mechanical maintenance, easy replacements and low power consumption (though requiring a few more and beefier servers instead).

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"A good thin client usually costs around the same as a desktop"? Where did you get that? A thin client needs less CPU power/RAM and no HD, so it should be a lot cheaper. I've seen prices of around 150 Euros (excluding monitor), which is much less than even an entry-level PC desktop. –  sleske Aug 11 '09 at 3:26
    
When I went thin client for about 60 nodes some five years ago I evaluated at least half a dozen thin clients. Some were crap, some were really slow, some were much faster, extremely small, pulled much less power than the others while still running the same OS, and included superior management suites and plugin architecture. The price for one of the truly good thin client terminals with some really useful addons/plugins were the same as one of our desktops - around 6000-7000 SEK (~$600-700 ex VAT). The cost-savings were in management, stability and power usage and so on. –  Oskar Duveborn Aug 11 '09 at 9:04
    
I can get a desktop for $150 as well, or $200 anyway, but it won't be very good when it comes to quality and service:ability, the warranty terms will likely suck and even though it may very well run our OS of choice decently it's a less than ideal idea. The hardware inside it may not be long-term supported and the fan might fail often due to bad design ^^ –  Oskar Duveborn Aug 11 '09 at 9:07

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