Why Buy a $350 Thin Client?

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On August 10, 2009, I’ll be at a conference in Troy, Michigan, put on by the LTSP (Linux Terminal Server Project, www.ltsp.org) crew and their commercial company (www.disklessworkstations.com). The mini-conference is geared toward people considering thin-client computing for their network. My talk will be targeting education, as that’s where I have the most experience.

One of the issues network administrators need to sort out is whether a decent thin client, which costs around $350, is worth the money when full-blown desktops can be purchased for a similar investment. As with most good questions, there’s really not only one answer. Thankfully, LTSP is very flexible with the clients it supports, so whatever avenue is chosen, it usually works well. Some of the advantages of actual thin-client devices are:

1. Setup time is almost zero. The thin clients are designed to be unboxed and turned on.

2. Because modern thin clients have no moving parts, they very seldom break down and tend to use much less electricity compared to desktop machines.

3. Top-of-the-line thin clients have sufficient specs to support locally running applications, which takes load off the server without sacrificing ease of installation.

4. They look great. There are some advantages to using full desktop machines as thin clients too, and it’s possible they will be the better solution for a given install:

1. Older desktops often can be revitalized as thin clients. Although a 500MHz computer is too slow to be a decent workstation, it can make a very viable thin client.

2. Netbooks like the Eee PC can be used as thin clients and then used as notebook computers on the go. It makes for a slightly inconvenient desktop setup, but if mobility is important, it might be ideal for some situations.

3. It’s easy to get older computers for free. Even with the disadvantages that come with using old hardware, it’s hard to beat free.

Thankfully, with the flexibility of LTSP, any combination of thin clients can coexist in the same network. If you’re looking for a great way to manage lots of client computers, the Linux Terminal Server Project might be exactly what you need. I know I couldn’t do my job without it.

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