The Case for Mobile Thin Clients

IT departments save money and increase security with these new devices.

July 2010 E-newsletter

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Information needs to move easily, cheaply and securely. To fill those requirements,
many colleges and universities are taking a close look at mobile thin clients:
portable devices with minimal storage and processing power that deliver networked
applications and data via a wireless connection. These clients can go virtually
anywhere and run tasks that full-powered notebook systems can, but they're
less expensive and more secure.

Yet, mobile thin clients remain a fairly well-kept secret, accounting for
less than 4 percent of all thin devices expected to sell worldwide in 2010,
says Bob O'Donnell, vice president for clients and displays for IDC.
In part, that's because many organizations run thin-client software
on existing hardware such as full-fledged notebooks, which aren't included
in these thin-client projections.

Iowa State University is looking to outfit a mobile lab for its English Department
using notebooks or thin clients running VMware View, says Mike Lohrbach, a
systems analyst for the university's IT Services.

The department plans to buy roughly 30 machines that it will store on a cart
and wheel between rooms. Mobile thin clients will give English professors the flexibility
to hold classes wherever they want without the cost of putting a machine on
every desk, Lohrbach says. With thin clients, no data is stored on the machine's
hard drive, so multiple users can share a notebook without jeopardizing data
security. Plus, using a thin-client architecture allows the IT department
to manage all the machines centrally.

Right now, Lohrbach says his group is still evaluating thin clients for the
English Department, which will buy and deploy the machines perhaps as early
as this fall.

At the University of Baltimore in Maryland, the IT staff is testing mobile
thin clients this summer as part of a desktop virtualization pilot.

Jim Campbell, a systems analyst at the university, says his staff bought
50 virtual desktop licenses from VMware, half of which will be used on thin-client
devices, with the rest going to notebook and desktop computers.

46%

The percentage of organizations that have not established security standards
for handheld or portable devices

Source: Proofpoint Report, Outbound Email and Data Loss Prevention in Today's
Enterprise, 2009
; survey of 220 e-mail decision-makers at U.S. organizations with more than 1,000 employees

He says the primary goal is to deliver applications such as SPSS and Microsoft
Visual Studio
remotely so students don't have to use the campus labs.

“Many of our students are working parents and working professionals,”
Campbell says. If they don't have to come to campus to use a computer
lab, it's a big plus.

The university will test the setup over the summer and roll out the virtual
applications in tandem with a course this fall, most likely a statistical
methods course, he says.

Future Factors

A mobile thin client is ideal for an environment in which users move from
building to building and have good connectivity, says IDC's O'Donnell.
Beyond that, he says, “if there's no guarantee of a strong wireless
bandwidth or a reliable 3G connection, mobile thin clients become more problematic,”
he says.

Still, as fourth-generation networks come online and cloud computing becomes
ubiquitous, such bandwidth issues will likely become less prevalent.

“In general, people are moving toward what I call a ‘portable
digital identity,' where their ability to function isn't dependent
on a particular hardware device because all their stuff lives in the cloud,
enabled by software like Citrix or VMware,” says O'Donnell. “At
that point, it doesn't matter whether you use a thin client, a PC or
something like an iPad to access it.”

Questions to Ask Before Going Mobile

  • How's your wireless infrastructure? You need
    bandwidth to spare and solid coverage wherever your users roam; otherwise,
    access will suffer.
  • Are there any software license limitations? Make sure
    you have the rights to run your programs in a thin-client environment.
  • Got batteries? Even thin devices eventually run out
    of juice. Invest in spare batteries and consider setting up charging stations
    in common areas.
  • What are your users used to? If they're comfortable
    running Windows, you will need to prepare them for the transition to a
    new interface if you choose a non-Microsoft operating system or Linux.
Jun 15 2010

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