Zero clients for virtual desktops?

Zero client solutions such as SUNDE's Diana devices trump PCs and thin clients in ease, simplicity, and long-term ROI, if users can work within the limitations

Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) has brought renewed interest to alternative endpoints, especially thin clients. After all, if the desktop is running remotely as a virtual machine, why should you use an expensive, power-hungry PC to access it?

However, thin clients are far from perfect. Thin clients may be less expensive, as well as easier to and service than a PC, but those advantages are only evident when comparing a new thin client purchase against a new PC purchase. In fact, VDI offers the most bang for the buck when used with legacy PCs, eliminating the need to buy new client hardware.

Even if a client hardware refresh is on your agenda, you'll want to weigh the advantages of thin clients carefully. Most thin clients are based on technologies that were developed for terminal services solutions. They have CPUs and operating systems, and they require software installation, configuration, and maintenance. Like PCs, they must be provisioned and managed. In other words, though thin clients offer advantages over PCs, they carry some of the same baggage.

Zero client trade-offs.

If you're willing to sacrifice some flexibility, you can eliminate this baggage entirely with a zero client. Unlike a thin client, a zero client has no local processing and no operating system, nor does it require software installation or configuration. It's a tiny, ultra simple, plug-and-play device that uses very little power, never needs maintenance, and can be deployed in an instant by any end-user with enough brains to breathe.

What do you give up? At the very least, the zero client might be tied to a specific remote computing protocol or virtualization platform. For example, Wyse zero clients are available for Citrix HDX and VMware View, but not Microsoft RDP. Moreover, the zero client might be part of a completely proprietary VDI solution that limits access to virtual desktops to the vendor's own endpoint devices. This is the case with the SUNDE solutions, for example, neither of which makes virtual desktops available to third-party clients.

The maintenance-free SUNDE Zero Client has no CPU, firmware, or operating system, but includes multiple USB 2.0 ports, an audio port, and monitor support -- all driven from the server.

Nonetheless, when deployed with VDI, zero clients have the potential to replace traditional desktop hardware as part of a hardware refresh strategy and to bring virtualization to the desktop without having to spend the time and money to reconfigure and reprovision existing hardware. Plus, PC-related downtime and support costs become a thing of the past. In some deployments, such as where sensitive data is concerned, restricting access to proprietary devices can be an advantage.

The thinnest thin client

SUNDE’s Zero Client is arguably the "zero-est" zero client of all. It has no onboard processing, operating system, or intelligence whatsoever, but is simply an "I/O redirector" that works via TCP/IP. The SUNDE device is inherently much simpler than a thin client, and because there is no firmware to be updated or "hard associations" to be created between the zero client and the virtual machine that comprises a user's virtual desktop, it makes discovery and provisioning for VDI a much easier process.

I gave the latest edition of the SUNDE Zero Client a spin with the vPointServer software, which I deployed into a windows environment. The device is about the size of an A5 notebook and includes an RJ-45 10/100 Ethernet port, a DVI (Digital Visual Interface) graphics port, four USB 2.0 ports, an audio-out jack,.

SUNDE VDI with Diana zero client gets around a number of thin client limitations. Most thin client solutions lack the ability to run multiple displays. They're also poor at multimedia applications, simply because their integrated processors lack the power to offer adequate performance to handle the additional I/O. SUNDE, on the other hand, relies on server-side processing to make those advanced features work -- giving administrators the flexibility to offer more processing power to those users who need the features.

Deploying the SUNDE Zero Client consists of plugging in an Ethernet cable, monitor, USB mouse and keyboard, and the included power brick -- that's pretty much it. All the real magic happens on the server side, where the rest of the SUNDE VDI is installed. The server side consists of two primary components: the vPointServer software, which installs on a 64 bit Windows environment and the vPointguset a USB and audio agent that operates inside each user's virtual machine.

Simpler VDI

Installing the vPointServer software and provisioning virtual desktops was a snap. It only takes less than fifteen minutes to set up a new VDI workstation and user training is not required. Everything -- monitor support, USB ports, audio devices -- worked as expected. From a performance standpoint, the little Pano Zero Client worked well on my small test network. However, I expect larger networks with lots of traffic to impact the performance of the solution; some performance tuning may be in order for those installations.

All in all, the SUNDE makes VDI a lot easier to deal with. It effectively eliminates the hassles associated with supporting desktop hardware, while helping to simplify both hardware provisioning and virtual machine assignments to users. However, that ease-of-use comes at a cost -- namely, users can only access their virtual desktops via a Diana zero client. That may be a significant downside for organizations looking to use browsers, PCs, or other devices to access virtual desktops. In practice, SUNDE's solution may prove to be more secure, more reliable, and easier to use, but that limits flexibility.

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