Thin Clients: A Guide to Evaluating Your Options

Organizations that are looking at different types of digital workspace solutions will invariably come across thin clients as a useful component to reduce cost.

At first glance, thin clients seem to check a lot of the right boxes. They’re often much more affordable. They tend to appeal to mobile users. They’re generally easy to administer.

But before you take the plunge and start rolling out thin clients to all or some of your end users, it’s helpful to know exactly what defines a thin client, how thin clients stack up against other alternatives, and whether their popular claims measure up to their real-world advantages.

Battle of the endpoints: Thin clients vs. thick clients

A thin client is a type of endpoint, or user-facing computing device. The standard definition of a thin client is a computer that relies on a centralized server for its primary storage and processing rather than its internal hard drive or CPU.

That’s not to say that these devices don’t have those components. It’s just that the remote server they connect to is what does all the heavy lifting. Put another way, it’s the server in the data center, not the local device, that hosts the operating system and powers the primary computing environment—including software applications, Microsoft Office files as well as any sensitive data the user might be working with.

If that sounds a little too abstract, then maybe the concept of a thin client is better understood in relation to its opposite—thick clients.

Thick clients—also called fat clients—are your traditional desktop PCs or laptops. They run their operating system from internal storage using full-featured CPUs, and they can operate just fine without an Internet connection (even if some of their online functionality ends up being restricted). By contrast, server-side computers like thin client devices often require a network connection (via standard WiFi or Ethernet) to the central server to augment their basic functionality.

Another helpful reference point here is a third kind of endpoint device: the zero client. Zero clients rely completely on a network connection to the remote server and often can’t even provide a simple user interface without one. Thin clients therefore occupy the middle ground between zero clients and what you might call regular PCs.

Some well-known examples of thin clients are Dell’s Wyse product line, which can run either Dell’s own proprietary Dell ThinOS or Windows 10 IoT Enterprise. Their thin and zero client devices can be laptops, desktop-style workstations or even all-in-one computers. And that variety extends to thin clients in general. A Citrix employee even gained notoriety in 2013 for configuring a Raspberry Pi as a thin client—a concept that later caught on with other solution providers.

What makes thin clients such an attractive solution?

Thin clients in general have several advantages over thick clients.

First, they’re incredibly cost-effective. The machines themselves have lower upfront costs than standard desktop computers or standard laptops because they don’t need high-end Intel CPUs or hundreds of gigabytes of internal storage. As noted above, the central server is largely responsible for that.

Second, thin-client hardware is often geared toward mobility. Since the server is handling the computing workloads, thin client devices can achieve more with lower device power consumption. Manufacturers can therefore concentrate on making them lighter weight and more portable rather than giving the devices huge cooling solutions or tons of memory.

Third, thin clients are usually easier on IT because they involve fewer moving parts. You don’t have to spend time provisioning every device individually, as is often the case with desktop PCs. By using virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) or cloud-based desktop virtualization (like Virtual App Delivery (VAD)) and remote desktop solutions, IT can make simple server-side changes that are then pushed out to all the thin client computers in the fleet.

Fourth, there’s security. Thick clients can be harder to administer and incorporate into a single security solution, whereas thin clients can all connect to the same protected server. That also makes for better centralized oversight.

And, finally, there’s scalability. By virtue of all these other advantages, it’s generally less work for an organization to procure, deploy, manage and shrink or expand a fleet of thin clients. For example, it’s easier to equip (and de-equip) a seasonal or a contract worker with a thin client than a full-blown desktop PC.

Chromebooks as thin clients of choice

As with any solution category, there are going to be some thin clients that fit the bill better than others.

Following their debut in 2011, Chromebooks quickly became the go-to choice for many educational institutions. But in the past few years alone Chromebooks have seen a widespread surge in adoption across industries. In 2020, Chromebooks outsold Macs for the first time. By 2021, global Chromebook unit shipments were more than double what they had been just two years prior. That same year, manufacturers like Dell, HP and Acer reported record Chromebook sales that outpaced analysts’ already high expectations.

What makes Chromebooks such a popular choice as thin clients? Well, it’s probably the fact that they capitalize on the key advantages of thin clients outlined above and then add powerful integration with Google’s services on top of that. As a category unto themselves, Chromebooks have:

  • A clearly defined product niche. When IT purchases and deploys Chromebooks, they know exactly what to expect in terms of capabilities and compatibility, regardless of manufacturer.
  • An emphasis on cloud capabilities. Chromebooks helped usher in the era of cloud computing and can leverage leading cloud services as a matter of course.
  • A mature thin client OS. ChromeOS is a Linux-based operating system backed by Google’s expertise and support for progressive web applications.

Even though the features and enterprise adoption of ChromeOS have grown over time, Chromebooks have still faced some skepticism. In some IT circles, some still view ChromeOS devices as primarily a fit for educational use cases or light workloads. A lot of this skepticism can be traced back to their very early days when thin client software and support for peripherals wasn’t as robust as it is today. But that has changed.

Cameyo and ChromeOS: The perfect pairing

That being said, there are some things that Chromebooks were designed not to do. ChromeOS was designed to be lightweight and cloud-oriented, so it doesn’t run desktop-class software natively. This can present a barrier to adoption for enterprises who see the value, security, and performance benefits of ChromeOS but still need to be able to provide their employees with access to all of the Windows applications they need to do their jobs.

With Cameyo, all that changes. Our Virtual Application Delivery (VAD) platform delivers apps to any device with an HTML5 web browser, enabling end users to access full-featured desktop applications right from their Chromebooks—including resource-hungry specialized software like AutoCAD or the Adobe Creative Cloud Suite. Your users get seamless access to all the enterprise-grade productivity software they rely on, and IT continues to enjoy the ease of managing secure cloud desktops from the Google Admin console.

Together, Cameyo and ChromeOS make a powerful combo that maximizes the ease of use, cost savings and security of thin client computers.

  • Zero Trust Security: Along with ChromeOS, Cameyo strengthens Zero Trust security models by further reducing the attack surface for remote and hybrid workforces.
  • Less infrastructure: Unlike many VDI solutions, Cameyo doesn’t force organizations to use a VPN to stay connected. And the tight cloud integration of both Cameyo and ChromeOS creates a feature-rich computing environment without having to roll out a lot of backend hardware.
  • Intuitive for end users: Thanks to its native file system integration, Cameyo allows any Windows app to be delivered as a Progressive Web Application (PWA). That means IT can easily manage these apps via the Google Admin console, and they appear on users’ taskbars as if they’re locally installed.
  • Lower overall costs: There are multiple interconnected factors that make Cameyo and Chromebooks the most cost-effective solution for many enterprise organizations, especially when compared to the complexity of desktop virtualization with VDI.

Mario Zúñiga, IT Director, Digital Workplace at the electronics manufacturing services provider Sanmina, said that the combination of Cameyo and Chromebooks has saved his company time, money and hassle while also boosting user productivity: “With Cameyo, we can move our employees over to Chrome devices without disrupting their workflows. Cameyo’s platform enables us to give our employees access to the full desktop version of their legacy Windows applications on any Chrome device. For our employees, the experience is seamless.”

No wonder Cameyo is Chrome Enterprise Recommended. We’re making it possible for large-scale Fortune 500 organizations like Sanmina to provide their dynamic workforces with secure Google virtual desktops on their optimal thin client devices.

See what makes ChromeOS and Cameyo the ideal pairing for any organization that’s considering thin clients – and even for orgs NOT considering thin clients, but who are looking to reduce costs and increase the security. Sign up today for your free trial of Cameyo or simply request a demo to learn more about how Cameyo unlocks the full potential of ChromOS devices.