Is it better to have a client that's large and in charge or thin and nimble?
Sep 01 2011

Thin vs. Thick Clients

While PCs with their own operating systems and storage will always have a place, thin clients with web-based applications offer a world of potential.

Let’s get this joke out of the way: A thick client is NOT another term for dumb user.

Thick clients, sometimes called heavy or fat clients, are personal computers with their own operating system, storage and ability to execute their own programs. Microsoft is the primary thick-client enabler, and still provides the vast majority of personal computers with an OS and multiple applications designed to run as a self-contained system (Microsoft Office, for example). These have been the rule for the past 30 years and will remain important for high-powered data churning applications such as video production, software development and database churning.

Thin clients, on the other hand, serve as a front end to other computing resources, like terminals to mainframes or mini-computers in the days before PCs took over. But for many, the pendulum is swinging back toward thin clients for a variety of reasons.

What's causing this swing? Two things: the yearning for better desktop management and control, and browser-based applications.

Larger companies struggle to maintain hundreds or thousands of thick-client systems, desktops and notebook computers, and are tired of the management aggravation and expense. But employees still need to run mainstream thick-client applications, such as Office. So these companies centralize the processing power in servers and make the desktop keyboard and monitor a thin client once again. Microsoft Terminal Services and Citrix offer two ways to do this. They provide centralized management, but they can be expensive. A virtual PC, including licensed applications, must be created on a server for every user.

Applications Provide Advantages

The new method of moving to thin clients is the increased use of browser-based applications. Most of us run browsers as an application in a thick client, such as Firefox in Windows. The important part is that the processing power operates separately from the browser client machine.

This is where thin-client fun comes in. Think of how many devices you own that have browsers. This includes your PC or Mac, of course, but also your tablet devices and smartphone. Your notebook has one, but if you get a Chromebook, it’s nothing more than a browser or very light client. And I'd consider your smartphone the lightest client, but those don't have a screen or input tools good enough to serve as a primary workstation.

Companies moving to thin clients don't have to buy huge server farms anymore to run their applications. Hundreds of software as a service companies have built their own servers and applications for companies to rent for a few bucks per user per month. If you use Google Mail, your desktop is only a thin client. The same is true if you use QuickBooks Online, Salesforce CRM or similar applications. Companies are now “webifying” their own internal applications to provide them via browsers.

Few companies can go completely browser-based today, which is why the Chromebook is more of a pilot than a real product line. But as mobile network connection bandwidth increases — thanks to improvements such as 4G and Wi-Fi in coffee shops, restaurants and even airplanes — that day might be here sooner than later.

Can you take advantage of this trend without moving completely to thin clients? Absolutely. Buy or license applications that can work in browsers. Make sure Wi-Fi is available throughout your company to encourage mobile users to rely on the network rather than client-based applications.

Just think: In a year or two, your smartphone, tablet device or personal computer might be just a browser click away from some seriously advanced hosted applications. That’s the potential of thin clients. But plenty of work remains before you’ll have access to a super computer in your pocket.