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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).