It doesn’t matter if you call it zero footprint PC, zero-client computing or just plain dumb terminal computing, the computing endpoint is undergoing a major change. Virtual desktop infrastructure from Wyse Technology, SUNDE and Teradici may soon eliminate conventional PCs.

With zero-client computing, what’s old is new again. The whole idea is to move computing back to the data center and away from the desktop. A zero-client environment is often less expensive and easier to deploy and manage. Its trio of possibilities is not lost on solution providers and IT directors.

Channel Insider's Guide to Zero Client Virtualization

Further fueling the interest in zero-client solutions is the escalating costs of deploying and managing PCs, now estimated to be in the range of $4,000 to $6,000 per year, according to Gartner and IDC. Those same research companies estimate that a VDI (virtual desktop infrastructure) can save upwards of 70 percent over the support and maintenance costs of desktop PCs. Those are numbers that are sure to attract the attention of C-suite executives.

Quite a few companies are pitching their zero-client technologies, but many of those don’t really fall under the true definition of a “zero client,” where there is no operating system, CPU and memory located at the endpoint. Simply put, a true zero-client device only connects a monitor and peripherals (mouse, keyboard, USB devices) back to a VDI or similar infrastructure in the data center. That definition is what separates zero clients from thin clients (which require local processing capabilities and operating systems). In fact, zero clients, thin clients and VDI are different technologies that can intertwine to create a desktop experience for the end user. Even so, virtualization (or VDI) is the key technology behind zero clients. Ideally, a zero-client endpoint will connect back to a virtual PC located on a blade server in the data center.

A few vendors are taking that very route to zero-client nirvana. Some names are familiar, such as Wyse Technology and Digi, while others are relative unknowns, such as SUNDE, ClearCube and Teradici. Each of those vendors gives a unique spin to the zero-client PC and each has its own little name for the technologies and devices. Some require proprietary hardware at both the server and the client side, while the real innovators here reduce the hardware footprint on the server side as well as the client side, helping to keep costs down and integration simpler.

Wyse, SUNDE and Teradici offer true zero-client solutions, while Digi and ClearCube offer more of a thin client (or ultra thin-client solution). In other words, VNC- or RDP-equipped PCs (or blades) are deployed in the back room and those products work more along the lines of a hosted PC solution and not so much as a VDI solution.

For those looking to investigate the pairing of zero client with VDI, a closer look at Wyse, SUNDE and Teradici is in order.

Wyse Brings Manageability

Wyse is taking the thin-client, zero-client market seriously. The company offers many different solutions, ranging from reduced-client PCs for Citrix-based solutions to thin clients with processing power and operating systems ready to run hosted applications, to their latest entries in to the field—zero clients designed for VDI.

Wyse offers two desktop devices, the V00L and the V00LE. The V00L features an 800MHz Via processor, while the V00LE sports a 1200MHz Via Processor. Other than that, it is difficult to distinguish the two products from each other.

The real power behind Wyse’s offering comes from the company’s provisioning and management software, Wyse WSM. Wyse WSM is designed to deliver the OS and applications to zero clients in real time over standard LANs and WANs, including Windows 2000, Windows XP Embedded and Windows XP Professional. Wyse users need Wyse Device Manager, which is a software management suite used to manage zero clients (and thin clients) across a workgroup or enterprise.

Those looking to deliver robust zero-client solutions will need Wyse TCX, a group of software extensions that brings multimedia and rich PC support to zero clients. The combination of those three software components brings support for VMware’s VDM 2.0 connection-brokering functions, which creates a fully supported VMware VDI deployment.

In theory, all of this works together to create a managed zero-client environment, but Wyse makes it anything but easy. Wyse is hampered by too many components, integration requirements and confusing deployment information. Much of that could be solved by the company creating "bundles" that are geared toward deploying a zero-client solution. The mix-and-match approach, with additional items needed for multimedia support, makes for a solution that is both hard to sell and hard to deploy. Add to that the limited and outdated information offered on Wyse’s Website, and the company makes it difficult to conceptualize a zero-client solution and even more difficult to figure out pricing, ROI, and many other factors channel partners need to consider.

Those looking to go the Wyse zero-client route will need the backroom infrastructure to support the clients, including VMware’s ESX server, associated servers (or blades) and network backbone. Worth noting is that VMware is bundling Wyse TCX software with ESX server, which helps to reduce overall deployment costs.

Teradici: An Evolving Solution

Teradici takes a different approach to the zero-client concept; the company calls its solution PC over IP, or PCoIP, and uses a combination of hardware and software to deliver a robust "remote display" solution. Teradici is the developer of the technology and uses partner organizations to deliver the hardware to the channel. Currently, EVGA offers both the host and client components to create a PCoIP desktop. Samsung offers a flat-panel display that has the Teradici zero-client integrated.

In function, the standard Teradici offering (under the EVGA Label) doesn’t fit under the VDI umbrella; in fact, the solution is more like what ClearCube offers with a blade-based hosted PC.

In short, PCoIP technology uses a chip set that compresses and encodes the entire PC experience at the data center and transmits it over a standard IP network to a stateless, driverless desktop "portal." Users can work with their PC or workstation as they did before—including all applications, graphics and multimedia functions—even if the computer is located in a data center miles away.

Solution providers may wonder why we have included Teradici—after all, it is not a VDI-enabled product. That said, in September 2008, VMware announced a strategic licensing and co-development agreement with Teradici to develop a replacement (or option) to the RDP display protocol currently used by VMware's VDI solution.

For VMware, RDP has been the limiting factor for embracing zero-client technology—RDP has always lagged behind Citrix’s ICA protocol in both performance and robustness. If VMware can solve that problem with Teradici’s help, then a natively supported VMware VDI zero client can be developed and Teradici will be at the forefront.

Ignoring the VDI angle, solution providers can still quickly set up zero-client systems using Teradici technology under the EVGA label. The only downside is that each zero client will require a dedicated piece of silicon in the data center. The Teradici solution is one-to-one for Teradici host-chip- to remote-client ratio, so if you want to remote 20 VDI instances from one server, you need to figure out how to cram 20 Teradici chips into that server. EVGA’s PCoIP products are expected to start shipping in quantity in the near future and final pricing hasn’t yet been published.

SUNDE Offers Simplicity & Lowest Cost

SUNDE is a relative newcomer in VDI but brings innovative highlights. With the singular goal of offering a device that works with virtual desktop technology called the Diana Device. The concept behind Diana Device is relatively simple; replace desktop PCs with the Diana Device, run SUNDE vPointServer software in the server room and a VDI deployment is done.

Of course, there are a few potential issues, such as not supporting VMware, Citrix or Microsoft platform; The Diana device and vPointServer software only works with the free hyperviosr of VirtualBox 4.0. This usually means turning down the enterprise customers who are loyal and get used to the big guys’ offerings. Luckily, this loss can be quickly offset by attracting more cost-sensitive users like SMBs and schools for the cost saving features of totally eliminating software cost in the server room and reducing the client component to a small device that only uses 5 watts of power and supports USB connectivity.

One other important issue comes in the form of bandwidth; SUNDE recommends a direct LAN connection of 100M bps or more between the Diana devices and the supporting servers to avoid problems from network latency and bandwidth limitations. SUNDE warns against the use of Diana devices for full multimedia or graphically intensive applications, such as CAD/CAM or full-screen video. These limitations may impact the viability of the product in environments where PC-based VOIP, video conferencing and other popular services are used.

SUNDE does achieve something unique with its innovative SUNDE-VDI protocol which delivers the same or even better performance, when compared to the big guys’ protocol or technology in LAN environments.

SUNDE’s complete end-to-end VDI system, which includes Diana device and free backend software, makes it easy to adopt this zero-client solution.

VDI: Our Take

For solution providers looking to build out VDI-based zero-client deployments, SUNDE offers the quickest and easiest way to accomplish that goal.

Wyse, while more complicated, offers a wide breadth of zero- and thin-client products and advanced management software that could lend itself well to enterprise deployments.

With Teradici, solution providers would be best to wait it out and see what fruit the partnership with VMware will deliver. Yet, if the goal is purely to build a zero footprint client, without the VDI piece in place—Teradici solutions under the EVGA brand name are worth a look.

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