Has Dell Created the Perfect Thin Client?

Many have tried to create a marketable thin client, let alone a perfect one. So far, all have failed. But the Dell-Wyse Cloud Connect, announced this week, might be close.

The thin clients' lack of success is hard to understand if you look at the market from the outside. Who wouldn't want a PC experience that worked like an appliance? After all, some of us do look back at certain aspects of the old terminal with fondness. You had to wait for the CRT to warm up, sure, but you didn't worry about viruses or software updates, and the whole thing was as reliable at that time as a TV.

There have been many efforts to replicate this experience. Oracle and Sun both tried to take out Microsoft — and failed. Clear Cube attempted to embrace Microsoft — and faired only slightly better. Wyse ended up with a far smaller market than it should have had, given that the potential demand for an appliance-like, virtual desktop experience was near universal.

Dell Logo

Dell, through its Wyse acquisition, has just launched Cloud Connect. Clouds have parted, and angels are singing. OK, maybe not, but this is by far the best attempt at a thin client ever made.

First Thin Clients Performed Poorly, Cost Too Much

When thin clients were created in the 1990s, they had two primary configurations: A shared server or a dedicated, PC-like back end. The server-based configuration could, mechanically speaking, scale easily, but performance degraded sharply. Users didn't like it. The PC back-end approach addressed the performance problem, but it cost more than just a PC. In the end, you had rack after rack of PCs being accessed remotely.

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The first thin client makers, Oracle and Sun, didn't understand PCs. Oracle was a mainframe company; Sun sold servers and workstations. PCs were toys to both companies and they couldn't embrace what they didn't understand. The PC back-end folks were PC guys, but they didn't understand servers and the need for shared resources. The solution, then, blended of server and PC technology. This required a very specialized server that just didn't exist — and the skills needed to create it didn't exist, either.

Better Networks, Servers and Clients All Help the Cause

The concept of the cloud, and the requirement to parse out performance more granularly, is what changed. VMware could take a server and better divide its resources though virtual machines; initially, it was virtual servers, but the technology worked with virtual workstations and PCs equally well.

We still needed servers tuned for this kind of effort, though — and Nvidia has recently stepped up with its Grid rack mounted servers, which are tuned specifically to provide PC-like performance and assure that any level of performance could be provided from the cloud. (Grid isn't part of the Cloud Connect announcement, but it does showcase the kind of performance that Dell could provide. Plus, Dell and NVIDIA have been partners for some time.)

[ Related: Nvidia Takes Video Games to the Cloud ]

[ More: Hosted Desktops Come of Age With Nvidia Grid and Citrix ]

In addition, bandwidth has expanded massively, bringing with it a focus on latency. Both had been a huge problem for thin client offerings, particularly for remote workers. In the past, higher-performing dedicated PCs needed hardware tying the remote PC to the desk, since network bandwidth and latency were inadequate. That has changed, even for many remote workers. We now have a pipe big enough and quick enough to get the job done. (Rural areas, particularly those without hardwired services or that still require satellite connections, remain problematic.)

Finally, Google took Linux — more of a science experiment than a product on the desktop — and made it viable as a user-focused platform with Android. This lets Dell's Wyse unit create the ultimate thin client: An affordable device that fits in your pocket and connect to services that can replace a PC.

This provides the three legs to the stool: Flexible servers, network bandwidth and latency, and an affordable, portable thin client.

Thin Client Travels Well, Offers Effective Security

Cloud Connect is pretty amazing to look at, given that you only really see the client. The device itself looks like a large USB stick with an HDMI port, which can receive power through an MHL HDMI port. It runs Android and connects to a Citrix Systems client. This lets it run Android Apps locally and Windows apps remotely, both fully contained and secure through Citrix. It can serve as a primary client, connected to an HD TV or monitor with an HDMI port (preferably touch), or as an emergency backup in case a laptop is lost or stolen.

[ Related: Dell Unveils True Enterprise Pocket PC at CES 2013 ]

[ Also: Dell's Chromebook 11 Breaks Reliance on Google's Cloud ]

Cloud Connect is arguably more secure than a PC, too. It doesn't store corporate hosted data locally, and it's plug-and-play simple to set up, particularly for anyone who has ever had an Android phone or tablet. (I got mine running in about five minutes, with most of that time spent pairing the Bluetooth keyboard and mouse.

Such a device is ideal for organizations on tight budgets with a potential for shrinkage, such as libraries, schools and emerging markets. It can also be used for digital signage — providing a reliable low-cost interactive solution with a touchscreen (or streamed solution for a display monitor) at a fraction of the cost of the typical PC-based approach.

There's also the potential to connect to gaming or movie services to provide an inexpensive entertainment solution for executives and kids on the road — and it would be much easier than connecting your PC to the TV, since you can still use your PC to work and don't have to carry and string an HDMI cable. (That has never worked well for me..

Cloud Connect Isn't the Perfect Thin Client, But It's Close

Cloud Connect is almost the perfect thin client, but it's hampered by the fact that there aren't a ton of HDMI monitors out there, and monitors and TVs with MHL HDMI ports are even rarer. In addition, the Android interface is optimized for touch and feels a bit unnatural with a mouse. Don't get me wrong, it does work — and once Citrix is up and you're using Office, it works fine — but if you want to use the Android features, touch improves the experience greatly.

In the end, Cloud Connect is a massive step forward for thin clients and showcases just how far we've come to create an appliance PC experience. It's kind of ironic that the thin client was initially created to kill the PC and put folks like Michael Dell out of business, given that those efforts failed and now Dell is the company that got it to work.

Rob Enderle is president and principal analyst of the Enderle Group. Previously, he was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group. Prior to that he worked for IBM and held positions in Internal Audit, Competitive Analysis, Marketing, Finance and Security. Currently, Enderle writes on emerging technology, security and Linux for a variety of publications and appears on national news TV shows that include CNBC, FOX, Bloomberg and NPR.

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