By Michael O'Dwyer
Here’s a question many businesses should be asking themselves these days: Do I want “fat clients” or “thin clients”?
No, we’re not talking about the weight of your customers. Rather, it’s the type of IT.
For the uninitiated, “fat client” refers to office computers and other devices that have their own hardware and processing power. PCs, which are self-contained processors, are a prime example.
Thin clients, on the other hand, are devices that rely on remote servers for much of their storage and processing functions. They rarely have hard drives, and some don’t even have a local operating system (known as “zero clients”).
Not surprisingly, thin clients are becoming more popular with companies because they offer better security and storage.
“Since the corporate data is stored on the back end infrastructure, backing up data is more efficient and secure since it’s centralized,” says Andrew McAllister, president of Resolute IT Solutions Inc., a Toronto-based provider of managed security and consulting services.
The one drawback is that thin clients have to be connected via the Internet to the network in order to function, much as cloud-based devices do.
“Only the absolute dependence on network connectivity may lead you to shy away,” says Bobby Kuzma, CISSP, president of Effortless IT, a Florida-based provider of IT services to small and medium business.
Still, more companies are seeing the advantage of a central network, so thin client adoption is increasing by seven percent each year, according to the International Data Corporation (IDC).
“One of the major avenues for data leakage is the risk of loss of the device itself,” says Kuzma. “By centralizing all data storage into secure environments away from the users, thin client technologies can help to reduce the threat of data loss.”
There are other advantages as well.
“The use of thin clients has become more and more popular, especially with the rising costs of software, maintaining equipment, and pending issues with desktop replacements such as XP Windows and Windows 8,” says Eric Marcus, CEO of Marcus Networking Inc., a Tempe, Ariz.-based provider of technology and telecommunication services.
“Moving to thin clients can improve security because it’s one server to maintain, monitor and control,” he adds.
Software and hardware inventory management is simplified as well. So is data security and legal compliance.
“Since the thin client doesn’t have a hard drive, you will save money, time and mitigate risk with end-of-life hard drive/data wiping, thus simplifying compliance for many regulations,” says Resolute IT’s McAllister.
Some of these regulations include Sarbanes-Oxley, which covers accounting procedures for data and identity compliance; PCI (Payment Card Industry), a global standard for receiving credit payments and protecting linked data; as well as FACTA (Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act of 2003), which helps detect identity theft.
The use of thin clients also could resolve issues relating to XP upgrade (Microsoft is ending support April 8) and substantially reduce overall time and costs for Windows XP migration.
“I think for an organization that is facing this challenge, a thin client model is a smart way to go,” McAllister says. “Faced with the task of replacing hardware, operating systems and applications on tens, hundreds or thousands of PCs, it makes sense to move to a centralized thin client model.”
Big companies especially might benefit.
“In large corporate environments with standardized application loads, thin clients have a huge advantage over PCs when it comes to replacing aging XP machines,” says Effortless IT’s Kuzma.
A server upgrade with thin clients could also be cheaper than purchasing new standalone PCs. McAllister believes that companies with aging hardware and operating systems should consider a centralized thin client solution.
“The ROI (return on investment) is very appealing and stakeholders will see an increased satisfaction in IT over time,” he says. “Thin client computing will streamline that process and enable the company to adapt to change quicker in the future.”
Adaptable for business
Thin clients also are adaptable to any type of business.
“We have a number of customers who have deployed thin clients into environments as diverse as produce production, labs and warehouses,” Kuzma says. “Thin client technologies have almost all the advantages of traditional PCs, on top of reduced costs of ownership and maintenance, reduced risk and improved reliability.”
Because of the connectivity issue, companies first need to ensure that the network is suitable for thin clients, which need enough speed and bandwidth to transmit data.
“Plan, architect and test before deploying (thin clients) or you will just end up moving your ’fat client’ problems back to the data center,” says McAllister.
That includes all office equipment, not just PCs.
“Sometimes, equipment such as scanners and other local devices that plug into the thin client aren’t compliant,” says Marcus. “Pick a reputable thin client manufacturer and double-check the software you are going to use to make sure it will work in a thin client environment.”