Thin Clients and Isolation; is the Future of Computing off the Desktop?

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The future of computing, at least personal computing, has been showing signs of weaning away from the traditional desktop for quite some time now. This has been due to several reasons: the advent of virtualization, the need for computing to be mobile, security issues, the need for savings on long term costs like hardware and power consumption and the adoption of cloud based services like SaaS (Software as a Service).

Thin clients have reduced the complexity of the desk terminal enormously. Where the traditional desktop used to have a miniature server with all the capabilities on the desk in the PC itself, in a thin client architecture, all we need is a desktop terminal without a hard drive, which boots up through a copy of the operating system, stored on the network.

Thin clients run remote desktop protocol (RDP), however, most of the thin clients use the Citrix remote desktop server application, in turn offered by Microsoft. In contrast to the traditional desktop architecture, thin clients provide several advantages:

Security: Thin clients store very little data locally as most of the storage is on the centralized server. This makes them less attractive as a target. All sensitive and application data resides on the servers at one location, hence, all security measures can be focused at the server end making it far easier to manage and oversee network security. The servers these days are placed in high security data centers hence the chances of data theft have diminished.

Ease of management: In the case of thin clients all applications are managed centrally, so updating software or making changes becomes simpler. Any change or update applied at the server level will automatically be updated and reflected on all the networked machines. This is far easier than applying these changes on individual machines separately. Should there be any issue with the updates, the central server can resolve the issue by deploying the previous stable version.

Improved Reliability: Thin clients have much lesser components that are prone to failure like hard drives or application memory. They usually have very few moving parts. This improves their reliability. They neither run heavy software programs locally nor do they perform huge processing tasks. Thin clients are more suited for deployment in dusty, rough environments.

Speed of deployment: Thin client machines can be pre-configured virtually and put to work within minutes if needed. It improves the flexibility of the whole network. Thin clients are known to rapidly deploy common desktop environments. These deployments could be run as a “factory model” for large rollouts.

Overall cost reduction: The overall cost of a thin client is far lower than a conventional PC because it has fewer components in terms of both hardware and software. The storage capacity can be estimated, specified and purchased at the server end. This can be better utilized also. Money is saved on the unused storage spending that needs to be done on each machine in case of conventional desktop PCs.

In the case of thin client architecture, the use of computing resources is also far more optimal because system resources are not used in clusters but rather, on a need basis. Computing resources remain idle for a very short time owing to the need based (almost dynamic) allocation. Even the power requirements are almost 50% less in the case of thin clients, after factoring in the servers and their cooling requirements.

Thin clients are helping in making computing a utility. If we look around, in so many cases, we see that most of the firepower resides at the provider’s infrastructure, whether it is Google or Facebook.

Further, the footprints of products are also going down. Chipsets are getting miniaturized, operating systems require lesser hardware now and cloud adoption is rapidly picking up.

Today’s world is also becoming very, very, mobile where it is imperative that computing too is mobile. Handhelds have stepped up to fill this need but new thin clients like the Intel NUC, Raspberry PI devices and the Micro PC are also capable of travelling well and making everyday devices more useful.

The last bastions, even today, for the desktop are corporate users. Large teams of employees are sitting in offshore development centers using thousands of PCs at one time, god alone knows in how many locations globally. The large cloud platforms like Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, Apple or Google App Engine are however, slowly getting well entrenched there as well. Thin clients are already well positioned to take advantage of this fundamental shift whenever it happens rapidly.

In a not very distant future, desktops will be a thing of the past even for the so called domains where they are indispensable now like graphic designing and gaming owing to new technological developments which are tearing away the old barriers.

Just to give an example, remote desktops and applications were not able to provide a 100% satisfactory user experience compared to that from modern, high-powered local GPU based devices, at least, not for gamers and graphic designers. It looks like NVIDIA has torn that down as well. The NVIDIA grid has overcome this limitation. This opens the door for browsers and productivity software also to democratize graphical and 3D processing capabilities. Thin clients are indeed steering the future of computing away from the desktop.

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