Thin Clients as VDI Endpoints

Figure 1: Thin Clients perform substantial processing on the endpoint device, requiring robust software and hardware

One architecture choice for VDI endpoints is what is commonly referred to as a thin client, the term “thin” referring to the relative “fatness” of a PC used as a client device. Thin clients used for VDI are often enhanced versions of those used for prior generation terminal services or application virtualization architectures.

A thin client typically includes a CPU, graphics coprocessor, memory, and local storage like a hard drive, solid-state drive, or simply flash memory. Thin client vendors often offer a wide range of models, from low-cost models for terminal services, to laptop-like mobile clients, ranging up to complex “chubby” models that include multiple DVI video ports, dedicated graphics processors, proprietary compression processors, and even hard drives, making them comparable to low-end PCs in capabilities and prices.

This amount of client-side hardware is required because in addition to the virtualized desktop operating system running on the server, thin clients always require a second specialized or embedded client operating system and VDI client software running on the thin client itself in order to function.

Thin client operating systems used for VDI include Microsoft Windows XP embedded (XPe) or Windows CE, although most vendors offer their own proprietary adapted Linux variations originally developed for use with terminal services.

Thin clients typically have fairly extensive firmware and need customized drivers on the endpoint in order to connect the thin client hardware to the embedded client operating system (as well as for support of different management and device monitoring interfaces). These drivers, however, can sometimes be supplemented by protocol extensions that provide services like USB port virtualization to remotely connect the endpoint’s peripheral ports to Windows drivers running in the VM.

Thin client vendors also often provide proprietary management software needed to configure and monitor thin clients. This software is sometimes even embedded, with web-based interfaces, into the thin client firmware.

Strengths of thin clients as VDI endpoints include:

Potential issues when using thin clients as VDI endpoints include:

Thin clients represent an attempt to extend a client-server architecture developed for prior terminal services and application virtualization efforts to support a new architecture delivering full Windows desktop virtualization. While thin clients can work in some settings, the resulting costs and complexity can severely undercut the potential TCO savings that desktop virtualization was meant to provide.

How Much Do Thin Clients Cost?

Customers sometimes mistakenly think the cost of the thin client hardware is equivalent to the per seat cost. But looking at all of the components and licenses needed to deploy VDI on thin clients shows a much higher cost. The table below includes all of the components and costs except for maintenance – Wyse thin client hardware, Wyse Streaming Manager appliances (used to reduce the image management overhead of the thin client operating systems), the VMware View suite (which includes vSphere hypervisors, the vCenter Server management tool, the View Manager connection broker and the View Agent/Client/Server VDI components) and server hardware.

Based on this configuration the initial capital outlay to purchase a 100 seat thin client VDI deployment comes to $ 1,438 per seat – significantly more than the cost of a typical business PC, making achieving any TCO savings difficult:

Wyse R00L Thin Client – 2 GB Flash, 1GB RAM, 1.5Ghz CPU. : $549 *100 = $54900

Wyse Device Manager Enterprise upgrade from standard license. : $19 *100 = $1900

Maintenance on Wyse Device Manager Enterprise. : $11 *100 = $1100

Wyse Streaming Manager Appliance, (R90LE) one per 25 clients. : $825 *4 = $3300

Wyse Streaming Manager Software license per thin client. : $200 *100 = $20000

Maintenance on Wyse Streaming Manager. : $45 *100 = $4500

Wyse TCX Suite protocol extension bundle for RDP: $35 *100 = $3500

Required maintenance on TCX Suite: $8 *100 = $800

VMware View Enterprise (vSphere, vCenter, View Manager, etc).: $150 *100 = $15000

Window 2003/2008/XP/7 virtual desktop access license per year                $100 *100 = $10000

Server Hardware w/12 CPU cores, 72GB RAM, 7164GB SAS drives         $7200 *4   = $28800

Total cost for 100 thin client VDI seats (at list prices) $143800

Cost per Wyse thin client VDI seat $1438

In addition to these initial capital outlays, thin clients usually require payments for maintenance on not just the hardware but also each of the software components which can end up adding substantially to continuing operating expenses.

Zero Clients as VDI Endpoints

One endpoint alternative to thin clients is called a zero client, where the term “zero” refers to the complete lack of any client-side processing or management.

Figure 2: Zero Clients eliminate all processing and software from the VDI endpoint.

Many VDI vendors claim that they offer zero clients of one form or another, but these are usually just thin clients that need additional hardware and software for streaming delivery of the endpoint operating systems, like the Wyse Streaming Manager, creating a system that is even less “zero” than a regular thin client. One vendor offering a true zero client endpoint specifically designed for VDI is SUNDE®. Zero client hardware includes only the simple component needed for the Ethernet network, along with those needed to connect to the USB, video, audio and other peripheral ports on the endpoint to the VM running on the server.

True zero clients omit any client operating system, so neither endpoint-resident drivers nor any other software is required. In fact, lacking a CPU there is nothing in a zero client that could execute any software were it there.

Since there is no need to store any endpoint-resident software or even provide temporary storage of data before it is processed, displayed or passed on to the VM, zero clients also omit any form of local storage, whether temporary storage like RAM or more permanent storage like hard drives and flash memory.

While these omissions might initially seem limiting, they actually provide the radical centralization needed to fully realize the benefits of VDI. Unlike the client-server approach to VDI taken by other endpoint architectures like thin clients, zero clients represent a complete rethinking of the desktop computing architectures that have been in place for the past two decades. Zero clients remove the deployment complexity, hardware/software redundancy, and creeping licensing and maintenance costs that have led to failed VDI pilots and unrealized return on investment from using other types of VDI endpoints.

Strengths of zero clients as VDI endpoints include:

Potential issues of zero clients as VDI endpoints include:

How Much Do SUNDE Zero Clients Save

Aside from the clear technical and productivity merits of true zero clients, how much do they save? We saw above that a typical thin client VDI deployment costs roughly $ 1,438 per seat to purchase – more than a typical business desktop PC.

By comparison, SUNDE Diana VDI solution eliminates heavy backend supports and uses SUNDE provided server software to support SUNDE Diana Zero Clients, removing heavy upfront and ongoing cost of other VDI implements.

The initial capital outlay to purchase a 100 seat SUNDE Zero Client VDI deployment comes to as blow:

SUNDE VDI complete solution with Diana zero client, SUNDE vPointSever package and one year of free maintenance. : $280 *100 = $28000

Window 2003/2008/XP/7 virtual desktop access license per year               $100   *100    = $10000

Server Hardware w/12 CPU cores, 72GB RAM, 7164GB SAS drives        $7200   *4      = $28800

Total cost for 100 Diana zero client VDI seats (at list price) $66800

Cost per zero client VDI seat

Looking at these purchase costs it is clear that not choosing zero clients for a VDI deployment leads to more than just higher operating costs energy costs and reduced IT staff productivity due to their complex provisioning and management – thin clients effectively cuts your deployment budgets by three times compared to zero client VDI.

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