Tuesday, June 20, 2023

What is a Thin Client? Types, Uses & Examples

A thin client is a computer system used to run applications where most of the actual processing is done on a remote server linked over a network.

The local machine, the thin client, is simply used to display the results in a way that is as close as possible to what you might see when running the program locally. These local machines are also called a slim or a lean client.

How Do Thin Clients Work?

Thin clients work on an operating system locally and carry flash memory. All applications and data for thin clients are stored in the central server and allows local printing, device support, web browsing, and processing network computing.

The thin client devices used to access remote user data can be strong and operate within a budget for companies that use a thin client. As connection protocols grow and improve, businesses can gain much more effectiveness out of thin clients and virtual desktops.

Client management console is a benefit for thin client users. It is a virtual tool that is installed and remotely manages all deployed employees. A client management console can create, clone, and show the company’s customized image to the deployed thin client devices. 

Different thin clients, therefore, support different workloads. For instance, the VNC protocol described above doesn’t (yet) natively support video streams. You could open a video player on a VNC-connected desktop, but you’d see at most one frame every second or so, even on a broadband connection.

On the other hand, you could run a web browser that supports Flash, connect to a remote video server, and enjoy full-screen H.264 video playback — on the exact same network connection. It’s also possible to open a VNC connection in a web browser, since a VNC server can provide a Java-based browser applet that runs at just about the same speed as the binary client and supports most of the same features.

For more on management: The Network Management Market 

Thin Client Use Cases

In theory, most any application can be run on a thin client. In practice, getting the most out of a given app in a thin client setting may require functionality that isn’t available through the client device.

Thin clients lend themselves most naturally to certain kinds of usage:

Thin Client In High-Security Or Public Environments

Any place where security is an issue typically benefits from some type of thin-client setup. Data is kept on the backend; the client only presents the user with whatever they are authorized to see, and tampering with the client generally only results in a broken client instead of stolen data.

Thin clients are also useful in public environments — libraries, government offices, airlines, Internet cafés — where many people may use the same machine, and there’s a need to reduce the amount of risk due to leftover data from previous sessions. The risk is not eliminated — it’s always possible to “shoulder-surf” someone else’s work — but it is reduced by dint of there being minimal data on the terminal itself.

Here are identity and access management (IAM) solutions that can help your organization with thin client security:


Visit website

Twingate helps fast-growing companies easily implement a Zero Trust secure access solution without compromising security, usability, or performance. We believe that “Work from Anywhere” should just work. Twingate’s secure access platform replaces legacy VPNs with a modern Identity-First Networking solution that combines enterprise-grade security with a consumer-grade user experience. It can be set up in less than 15 minutes and integrates with all major cloud providers and identity providers.

Learn more about Twingate

Thin Clients For Minimal Workloads

Thin clients are well-suited to workloads where the actual work being done is not CPU-intensive, and requires only as much client feedback as would be provided by a web browser. In fact, many such thin clients may well be web browsers, since they provide toolsets to cover most of the user interaction you might need in such a scenario.

Thin Clients For Apps With Higher Computational Demand Than The Client Hardware

One common scenario for repurposing older PC hardware is to convert it into a thin-client system of some kind. Applications that would not run well on the PC itself could be published from a server to that PC across a thin-client connection, provided the app’s functionality wouldn’t be hindered that way.

For cybersecurity news: Cisco Report Shows Cybersecurity Resilience as Top of Mind

Types Of Thin Clients

Thin clients can be grouped into two basic categories: software thin clients and hardware thin clients.

A hardware thin client is a device that has been created specifically to run thin-client software and little else. It’s easy to compare it with the “dumb terminal” or “diskless workstation” of old, albeit with better graphics, but there are some other differences.

Thin Client Examples

For one, the exact makeup of a hardware thin client varies. It could be an existing PC that’s been stripped down to do nothing more than run the client software, or a custom-designed piece of hardware that again does little more than connect to the remote host and perform the needed client display functions. One example of such a device is the nComputing system, a hardware thin-client mated with a server which allows dozens of users to be supported by a single desktop-class machine.

A software thin client is, simply, an application running on whatever host is available, whether dedicated (as with a hardware client) or just commodity hardware. It may use some of the abilities of the local host — hardware-based graphics acceleration, for instance — to better render the remote client’s interface.

But the exact choice of host doesn’t have to be a system designed solely as a connecting client—it can be a full-blown PC with its own workload, running the thin-client application in conjunction with other things.

Provided is hardware thin clients and software thin client software examples:

Examples Of Hardware Thin Clients

  • Wyse Thin Clients: Wyse, owned by Dell, was once a maker of terminals, but has since branched out into thin clients. Aside from connecting to remote hosts using ICA, RDP and VMware View protocols, Wyse has their own proprietary extensions to accelerate and enhance multimedia (including Flash) and multiple-display support across the wire. The clients are powered by a variety of operating systems depending on which model you use: Linux, Windows XPe, Windows CE, Citrix XenDesktop and their own proprietary ThinOS.
  • Leadtek Virtual Desktop System: Leadtek normally known for making graphics cards, but they also manufacture the Virtual Desktop System line of thin-client devices, which use the Teradici PCoIP protocol. The VP 200H is an add-on card which converts an existing system into a PCoIP client, while the VP 200P is a standalone device with low power consumption.
  • Oracle/Sun’s Sun Ray: A line of hardware clients designed to connect over local and wide-area networks, with a variety of configurations (e.g., both single and dual display connectors). The remote host can be Windows, Linux or Solaris OS, as Oracle ships support for all three operating systems.

Examples Of Software Thin Clients

  • X Window System (X11): This is the graphical windowing system developed for current breeds of UNIX, as discussed above. X11 works on a very low level, however — the core of the protocol doesn’t address things like windows, buttons, menus, style/theme controls, etc. — so those things are typically handled by other components. The emphasis with X11 has been on backwards compatibility and “provid[ing] mechanism rather than [user interface] policy,” so it’s still regarded mainly as a low-level transport protocol. X11 clients and servers exist for multiple systems apart from UNIX, which allows UNIX X11 apps to be published to, for instance, the Macintosh or Microsoft Windows.
  • For more information on Windows 11: Microsoft Windows 11’s Use of AI
  • Terminal Server Service (Termsrv.exe): Microsoft’s proprietary protocol for remote desktops and applications isn’t just used for thin client connections, although that’s one of its major functions. It can also be used to publish a specific windowed application to another system — for instance, from a virtual machine to a physical one, as XP Mode in Windows 7 does for making XP applications available to the system at large.
  • Citrix ICA: The Citrix family of remote-application products works similar to Terminal Services, but supports both clients and application servers across multiple platforms. Citrix also works closely with the Xen hypervisor, so that virtual machines running under Xen (or individual applications running under those machines) can be published across the network.
  • Sun Ray/Appliance Link Protocol: Oracle’s (formerly Sun Microsystems) proprietary thin-client protocol, which allows their Sun Ray thin-client hardware to connect to Sun servers. A proprietary software client made by Oracle also exists, which allows any client that can run the software to connect to a Sun Ray / ALP server. (An open-source software implementation of the client hardware, called SoftRay, is also currently being developed in Java.)
  • PCoIP:  Short for “PC-over-IP”, this is Teradici’s proprietary protocol for remotely connecting to a virtualized machine. It can be used with dedicated thin clients (“Zero Clients” in Teradici’s parlance); a PC with an add-on card, such as Leadtek’s “Virtual Desktop System” lineup of devices; or in software, such as in VMware’s View 4 application.
  • Virtual Network Computing (VNC): Short for Virtual Network Computing, this allows one computer to virtualize its desktop for another computer, regardless of the OS on either end. It allows for very precise rendering of the remote desktop, but at the cost of bandwidth and latency during major screen updates. Many extensions have been built into VNC to allow accelerated performance on specific platforms (e.g., Microsoft Windows), and a number of commercial (RealVNC) and free (TigerVNC) implementations exist.
  • Web Browsers: The most common real world version of a software thin client might well be a web browser, especially given the amount of rich interactivity provided by most web sites. Google’s Chrome OS is one current example of a browser-based thin client, where the client contains just enough code to run the browser and any minor maintenance required on top of that (networking, local cache, etc).

Limitations Of Thin Clients

The single biggest disadvantage to a thin client is its dependency on the network. Since everything a thin client does is provided across a network connection, the network becomes both a single point of failure and the single biggest performance bottleneck in the system. If the network slows down, experiences latency or cuts out completely, the client may do anything from lag to stop working entirely.

The exact construction of the thin client and server model in question can ameliorate some of the problems with a slow or flaky network. A web browser, for instance, can locally cache everything it downloads, although the size of the cache will vary depending on the capacity of the client hardware. Most anyone who’s browsed from their cache during a DNS outage will be familiar with how useful this can be. 

However, thin client dependency on the network remains. Also, networks are still many orders of magnitude slower than the slowest internal component in even a modest PC— the cost of which may be comparable to a hardware thin client. This may limit a thin client’s cost-effectiveness compared to a more conventional local-workstation solution.

Bottom Line: Thin Clients

A thin client is a computer system used to run applications where most processing is done on a remote server linked over a network, grouped into two basic categories: software thin clients and hardware thin clients.

All applications and data for thin clients are stored in the central server and allows local printing, device support, web browsing, and processing network computing. Thin clients are great for high-security and public environments, minimal workload, and higher computational demand for apps.

Similar articles

Get the Free Newsletter!
Subscribe to Data Insider for top news, trends & analysis
This email address is invalid.
Get the Free Newsletter!
Subscribe to Data Insider for top news, trends & analysis
This email address is invalid.

Latest Articles