What are 'zero clients,' and how are they different from thin clients?

Let's look at the differences between a thin client vs. zero client, what exactly a so-called zero client is, how it works and why you'd choose one over a more traditional thin client.

The term thin client means different things to different people. They have in common is that they offload most (if not all) of the heavy work to back-end servers, resulting in a client device that is small, light and, most importantly, stateless.

It's that "stateless" attribute that's the center of attention today. Even though thin clients don't do anything without a network or some servers, some software is often still installed and maintained on the thin client itself. Usually taking the form of firmware or installed into flash memory, thin-client devices typically run an operating system such as Windows CE, Windows XP Embedded or Linux.

So what's the big deal? Even though these thin clients run an OS, they're stateless, right? Doesn't that mean there's no management? Unfortunately, that's not always the case.

First of all, thin clients running any OS might need to be patched or updated from time to time. Even though this patching isn't as frequent as the "Patch Tuesdays" we're all accustomed to in the Windows world, there's often a need to update a thin client's software to deliver new features or capabilities. Second, thin clients often need to be managed to deploy new configuration options or settings.

Thin client vs. zero client

So even though thin clients don't have any real data on them and do most of the work via central servers, they can still be a pain to manage. To solve this problem, a few vendors starting selling what they called "zero clients" -- client devices with literally no configuration and nothing stored on them. From a functional standpoint, zero clients and thin clients are pretty similar; it's just that zero clients have zero device-based management.

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