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Where Are the Cheap Thin Clients? 349

Posted by kdawson
from the can't-be-too-rich-either dept.
Darren Ginter writes "I find many aspects of desktop virtualization compelling, with one exception: the cost of the thin clients, which typically exceeds that of a traditional box. I understand all of the benefits of desktop virtualization (and the downsides, thanks) but I'm very hung up on spending more for less. While there are some sub-$200 products out there, they all seem to cut corners (give me non-vaporware that will drive a 22" LCD at full resolution). I can PXE boot a homebrew Atom-based thin client for $130, but I'd prefer to be able to buy something assembled. Am I missing something here?"
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Where Are the Cheap Thin Clients?

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  • by Eric Smith (4379) <<moc.ahahuorb> <ta> <cire>> on Sunday December 20, 2009 @06:07AM (#30502998) Homepage Journal
    The more you pay, the less you get.

    Though not for the same reason. You get a complete PC for less than a thin client because complete PCs are made in insanely high volumes compared to thin clients, which are a niche item.

  • Re:other costs (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 20, 2009 @06:10AM (#30503008)

    A PXE-booted Atom board has neither drives nor fans.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 20, 2009 @06:10AM (#30503010)

    To me the compelling aspect of virtualisation for the desktop is to be able to use a standard computer to access specialised systems, such as CAD (check out RHEV with SPICE), legacy software or test environments. At work our conference room PC's are actually normal PC's that connect to a 'conference' room virtual machine, it allows instant display of said specialised systems without effort.

    AB

  • 1996 called, (Score:4, Insightful)

    by type40 (310531) on Sunday December 20, 2009 @06:20AM (#30503024)

    they want their "future of desktop computing" back.
    Seriously, I remember talking with some IBM engineers back in high-school and they were so certain that thin clients were the hot new thing that would change the face of computing.

    You want to know where to buy thin clients? Goto www.dell.com and buy the cheapest POS they have with a fast network card. Thin clients will always be a more expensive niche player to the PC. After all what is a thin client? A PC with no local storage that can only work if it has a network connection.

  • Re:1996 called, (Score:5, Insightful)

    by timmarhy (659436) on Sunday December 20, 2009 @06:32AM (#30503056)
    err no they aren't. you can buy an entry level thin client for $99.

    thin clients never caught on because not enough MCSE's get taught about them and the CIO doesn't like all the restrictions it puts on his playing of porn.

    in environment's where things like CAD are used thin clients aren't a viable option (yet), but for a lot of businesses it's by far the best way to go.

  • Slow news day? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by hairyfeet (841228) <bassbeast1968@ g m a i l.com> on Sunday December 20, 2009 @06:34AM (#30503058) Journal

    Well here you go [surpluscomputers.com] a 1.7GHz off lease Compaq desktop for a whole $75 with shipping. That is pretty much the only choice if you don't want to DIY, because thin clients are a niche that will cost you $$$ that it doesn't sound like you are willing to spend. This is small, can fit under a monitor, and has 20Gb of local storage. Perfect for a thin client.

    The simple fact is that is as cheap as you're gonna get, because PCs have economies of scale and thin clients don't. If you just have to have an OEM thin client be prepared to shell out the $$$ buddy.

  • by RAMMS+EIN (578166) on Sunday December 20, 2009 @07:03AM (#30503122) Homepage Journal

    I think the explanation may be market segmentation. Thin clients are aimed at large organizations, where a few hundred dollars for a machine is chump change. They will happily buy greatly overpriced thin clients, because even the cost of an overpriced thin client on a desk is still dwarfed by the cost of the employee at the desk.

    For home users, the picture is different, because they tend to see the computer in isolation. But the vast majority of home users wouldn't want to buy a thin client at any price, because they wouldn't know what to do with it.

    If you want a cheap thin client, I would recommend to either buy one second hand (you can get them for under 100 dollars), or to just get whatever box you can and pretend it's a thin client.

  • by RAMMS+EIN (578166) on Sunday December 20, 2009 @07:10AM (#30503138) Homepage Journal

    I don't think that argument holds water. After all, the parts that go in thin clients are the same parts that go in PCs, so that can't be the difference. Then there are some custom things, such as the case, but if you consider the countless PC cases, motherboards, etc. etc. already out there, I think that, even though total volume for PCs may be higher than total volume for thin clients, the volume for a given combination of parts that make up a PC isn't necessarily higher than the volume for a given combination of parts that make up a thin client. I think thin clients cost more simply because their target market will bear higher costs (if you are a large company or government agency, spending a hundred dollars more or less on your thin clients isn't such a big deal).

  • CapEx vs OpEx (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Krokant (956646) on Sunday December 20, 2009 @07:59AM (#30503240)
    Don't forget that the biggest cost in a client is not necessarily the purchasing of the hardware (which is obviously the most visibile cost). Various studies (Gartner, IDC, ...) indicate that a PC that is purchased for $500 (one-time cost) in fact costs somewhere between $1500 and $4500 per year (!) to manage. These hidden costs are mainly into the backend infrastructure supporting these PC's in corporate environments, people managing them, deploying software on them, ... Google for desktop TCO and you'll find plenty of information. Sure, you might disagree with the exact numbers provided by a Gartner /IDC /Forrester but at least it gives an indication.

    For thin clients (and desktop virtualization for that matter), this is also where the cost savings are. No serious VDI vendor will tell you that the CapEx (investment in hardware, licenses,...) is cheaper with thin clients and virtual desktops: you need to buy additional licenses, you're going to run desktops on server hardware (ok, 100 at a time on the same box) and then I still didn't start about the licensing galore (Microsoft VECD, Citrix XenDesktop or VMware View or...). The real cost savings are in the fact that it's much easier to manage, and being able to let your very expensive system administators do something else than troubleshooting a desktop (which costs you twice for the end-user downtime and the sysadmin troubleshooting it).

    The same goes for thin clients: the up-front investment is larger, but they are very easy to manage (plug into the network and the thing autoconfigures itself, pointing you to your virtual desktop -- which means fewer expensive sysadmin interventions on-site for replacing hardware!), they live longer compared to traditional desktops (these used to have three-year lifecycles whereas thin clients typically have a five-year lifecycle -- roughly speaking you'll need to buy two traditional desktops for one thin client in a 5-year desktop lifespan; I'll concur to the fact that with the economic situation, you'll see prolongued lifetimes for both thin clients & desktops but the idea remains the same, numbers might differ today).

    So is the thin client cheaper? In most situations and looking at the total picture, sure it is. Even despite a higher up-front investment. The real problem is not really the price of a thin client but whether your applications and IT environment support thin clients/server based computing (TS/Citrix/VDI).

    Sidenote: I work for a consulting firm where I work a lot with VDI & Server Based Computing in general; we strive to be independent as possible (trying to nuance the vendor claims as much as possible for our clients) but that might mean I am a bit biased towards using SBC if it works ;)
  • by itsdapead (734413) on Sunday December 20, 2009 @08:10AM (#30503284)

    "I find many aspects of desktop virtualization compelling, with one exception: the cost of the thin clients, which typically exceeds that of a traditional box.

    Thing is, if you're using office productivity apps or database front ends (the usual applications for desktop virtualization) then the most computationally intensive part of the job is probably rendering the user interface - so your thin client needs to have pretty much the same CPU and GPU clout as the desktop it is replacing. The Flash RAM costs as much as 10x the amount of HD storage and (since most people expect Thin Clients to be Thin) you're probably paying a premium for laptop-class components. The only real saving is DRAM - which is dirt cheap.

    Also, since the main market for these is corporate, any retail prices you see will be inflated so that corporate clients can be offered a nice "discount".

  • Re:32x32 (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Jerry Smith (806480) on Sunday December 20, 2009 @08:24AM (#30503302) Homepage Journal

    (give me non-vaporware that will drive a 22" LCD at full resolution)

    K. Will 32x32 (1024) pixels be enough? We can use a TI-83, not even silver, to accomplish this! Oh, you mean you wanted a non-stupid resolution. As far as I'm concerned "full resolution" means the maximum native resolution a monitor can output.

    Erm, yeah, I guess he expected non-stupid reactions, from people who'd automatically assume a 1920 × 1080 resolution.

  • Re:1996 called, (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Hognoxious (631665) on Sunday December 20, 2009 @09:31AM (#30503478) Homepage Journal

    but if it doesn't offer enough stuff that those pesky users want then it will be resisted and then subverted.

    They're supoosed to get what they need, not what they want. The don't need dancing pigs.

    IT Departments cannot impose there will on their clients in the long term.

    Finance can (we're using this because it's cheaper), Legal can (installing unauthorized software puts the company at risk) and HR can (if you don't like it, then get out).

    IT just needs to convince them.

  • Re:1996 called, (Score:3, Insightful)

    by ThePhilips (752041) on Sunday December 20, 2009 @09:46AM (#30503566) Homepage Journal

    It may be easier to support; it may mean greater security; but if it doesn't offer enough stuff that those pesky users want then it will be resisted and then subverted. IT Departments cannot impose there will on their clients in the long term.

    Or in other words, the IT becomes "single point of failure." While PC can run without any infrastructure or IT involvement.

    That has been always the biggest argument against thin clients.

    Plus few people actually want to work on the thin clients, so you rarely see any grass root support for them coming from employees. And "better PC" is often used by management as an incentive for subordinates too.

  • by pjr.cc (760528) on Sunday December 20, 2009 @10:24AM (#30503768)

    I have two thin clients from either 1990 or 1991 sitting in my roof, and generally speaking that was the last time they were actually useful.

    The reality is that dropping a cheap desktop pc on peoples desk, having a data policy, and having file servers is alot cheaper than thin clients. The simple fact is that the market is mostly driven by joe blogs with his home pc and he has no use for thin clients (despite many attempts to make thin clients relevant in the home). When you talk about thin clients its always business and enterprise which instantly adds a 1000% mark up of any hardware. Joe blogs buys so many home pc's in fact that their prices are so competitive, unlike thin clients.

    Want to pxe boot some atoms? your not going to beat that price, but be prepared for some pain, because licensing thin clients (even your own) is ridiculously expensive at the backend.

    There has also been alot of hot air released into the IT world about "centralising data into the datacenter" which sound great until you actually do it. WAN optimisation does help, but only so much.

    On top of this, thin clients are a perpetual network nuisance. They seem like a good idea until you get 50 or more clients on the same network segment continuously sending tiny little video updates and realise "holy god my network is being flogged to death". It sounds great but the truth is that sporadic write from clients to a shared file server consume much less bandwidth (people will scoff, but you'd be surprised how much different the network profile is for x number of desktops vs x number of thin clients, even with the rather thin rdp protocol).

    There are places where thin clients are used however and heres why:
    1) Compliance - i know one place that uses them exclusively because they just cant afford for their data to sit on desktops. I.e. the data itself has to be in some central secure location
    2) POS/Kiosk type work - i.e. people at windows servicing clients
    3) people who bought into the concept and now regret it... I know too many of these.

    There are advantages to them, but when viewed with an eye to what people are trying to achieve they mostly become irrelevant when people realise policy (cheap) can easily dictate fixing the problems they are trying to fix with a technical solution. One great one i love hearing is how user X can login to any terminal (or even remotely) to the exact same desktop. How many of your users ACTUALLY need that? Can you seriously say that a terminal server for vpn with access to the same file shares and mail server cant give you what you need? Are your users running around random desks every day they come into the office? The truth is (assuming your on windows at work) that profiles will give your users pretty much all they need - a pre-configured outlook and the network shares they're used to seeing.

    The second one is data, stopping users from saving data locally where it might be lost. Well, this is were policy can save your bum. It'll cause some pain now and then (though rarely) when a user looses a bit of documentation cause it was saved on his desktop (Despite the bleedingly obvious file server sitting next to them on the network) and his drive failed but the reality is this is so very rare the cost of a thin client solution becomes rediculous in comparison.

    Thats my $0.02 anyways. Thin clients i find quite interesting, but they are rarely useful at solving any real problems except in niche and very specific scenarios.

  • by dimeglio (456244) on Sunday December 20, 2009 @10:36AM (#30503796)

    I think the savings in deployment and long term maintenance of these terminal units are just an illusion. 1. it simply switches the cost of the workstation maintenance to the back office as you need an immensely powerful data centre to drive thousands/tens of thousands of these terminals; 2. you still need a service desk as most requests we get are for new employee accounts and handling typical release incident; 3. people want to stay competitive and having a one size fits all typically prohibits one-offs, even if there is an obvious advantage; 4. problems affecting a cluster will affect everyone so you still need backup PCs for critical service delivery. It was a great idea when all you needed was amber on black text and typically only ran 3-4 applications but now people expect full multi-media experiences, web 2.0, and although terminals are able to a certain degree to deliver these, it is often awkward and demands more than a cheap disk-less unit.

  • by kFiddle (1383267) on Sunday December 20, 2009 @10:41AM (#30503818)

    This basically just reaffirms the submitter's point. The PC-in-a-keyboard is not a thin client--it's a full, although lightweight, computer in a keyboard. It's $100. Want to buy an actual thin client? Expect to pay $300-$1000. Throw in a keyboard and monitor, and that ups the price quite a bit.

    Also, the argument that thin clients are "specialty" items that drives up production costs doesn't hold up, since one would assume the $99 computer-in-a-keyboard is also a specialty item. It contains, at a minimum, a hard drive and a keyboard, which is already much more than a thin client has (not incl thin client laptops).

    So why are thin clients so expensive? I've had the same question for a while now, since I've been looking around for a thin client laptop that's cheaper than a traditional laptop/netbook. So far I haven't succeeded, with most thin client laptops being much more expensive.

    My guess is that the marketers hear phrases like "high security," "low energy consumption," "remotely managed," "longer longevity," "virtualization," "cloud computing," etc and think they have features that can drive the price up. The geeks, though, understand that they could build their own "thin client" by just subtracting physical parts from their existing computer and doing a little configuration.

  • Re:1996 called, (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Clover_Kicker (20761) <clover_kicker@yahoo.com> on Sunday December 20, 2009 @10:59AM (#30503924)

    Or in other words, the IT becomes "single point of failure." While PC can run without any infrastructure or IT involvement.

    Eh?

    Without email, files on the network, network printers, whatever corporate apps you have, internet... what good is that PC?

  • by rdebath (884132) on Sunday December 20, 2009 @11:13AM (#30503994)

    That's exactly his point, he wants that PC without the hard disk, CDROM or OS.

    What do you think that should cost? Maybe $150 ? Why aren't there any tickboxs to do it ?

    Why is there a separate genre of thin client PC's that cost so much more?

    Who is being conned here?

  • Re:I'm Confused (Score:3, Insightful)

    by obarthelemy (160321) on Sunday December 20, 2009 @11:26AM (#30504066)

    Most of that can be achieved with a well-designed "fat client" network:
    - standard PCs, swap if broken
    - no local data storage via user policies/right
    - patching: frankly, i don't care, 1000 identical desktops can be automated
    - power/noise: i'll grant you that one, hsouldn't be much of an issue though
    - portability: can be done on fat clients too
    - bandwidth: i'll grant you that one too

    On the flip side, fat clients give you more responsive UI, less network load/dependency, less peak-time cpu cycles starvation...

  • Re:1996 called, (Score:3, Insightful)

    by poetmatt (793785) on Sunday December 20, 2009 @11:46AM (#30504172) Journal

    you missed one group: users can fight it (bitching from every group in the company).

    It's all about the compelling argument. whoever makes it, wins. that's standard business practice anyway.

  • by hoggoth (414195) on Sunday December 20, 2009 @02:21PM (#30505414) Journal

    > users will WINE ...
    > ...Windows server and giver them their familiar environment back

    I see what you did there...

  • by mysidia (191772) on Sunday December 20, 2009 @03:21PM (#30505814)

    The PC-in-a-keyboard is not a thin client--it's a full, although lightweight, computer in a keyboard.

    No. It's a fricckin thin-client. This argument is something like saying a computer monitor that has an HDMI input in addition to DVI is not a monitor, because computer monitors only have DVI/VGA inputs.

    OMG: being a computer doesn't disqualify something from being a thin client. All thin clients are computers.

    It's the lightweight part and low-cost that by definition makes the system a thin-client.

    Having a hard drive or other storage media doesn't mean it's not a thin client either.

    The actual qualification to being a thin client refers to how the machine is used, not the actual specs of the machine.

    For a machine to be used as a thin client, it indicates the bulk of the data processing and long-term storage will be handled by the server.

  • by zogger (617870) on Sunday December 20, 2009 @03:34PM (#30505934) Homepage Journal

    I didn't think a thin client was anything other than a diskless PC connected to a server. Seems like if someone needed a lot of them cheap, they could look for pallet loads of recent vintage/good enough specs off lease whatever computers from some corporation, where they remove the hard drives for destruction, and just use those. I bet you could get a bunch for fifty bucks apiece that way if you shopped around.

    With that said, some company that already had full workstations could just remove the drives themselves, then add some servers, etc to achieve this thin client goal.

    I guess I am just not understanding why less hardware has to cost more money, or is hard to find. Heck, my local rural town whitebox shop sells entire *bundles* of refurbed old business desktops plus crappy old monitors if you can live with a 15 inch one and keyboards, etc for 99 bucks, add 20 bucks for a 17 inch monitor. Pull hard drive, insert ethernet cable, add a server in the closet some place with some switches, etc. Just not seeing the problem here outside of the actual case might need to be tiny or something. If the guy found a deal for pallet loads with the hard drives and optical drives included, they could yank those and ebay them, then put the money towards more RAM maybe or setting up the servers, etc.

    There's always barebones deals, too, for "brand new".

  • Re:other costs (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 20, 2009 @04:53PM (#30506512)

    ...says the person who uses fail as a noun. :)

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