The Rebirth of Virtual Clients

As with many industries, the history of the computing business often follows a circuitous path. In the early days, centralized mainframes provided the computing horsepower to dumb terminals. Then came independent PCs, followed by the transition back to server-based computing with thin clients—storage-free devices that essentially served as the graphics front end for the computing workloads being performed on the server.

While thin clients made a reasonable impact for many businesses—particularly those in regulated industries—they didn’t ever provide the kind of transformation to the computing environment that many had predicted. Full-powered PCs, it turns out, were still essential for many tasks, particularly those that were dependent on graphics, so we saw a renewed emphasis back on PCs.

Now, we’ve moved into the era of mobility, where smartphones have become increasingly powerful compute devices. Arguably, however, smartphones (and tablets) have actually become next generation thin client/virtual client devices, with much of the computing experience they deliver coming from cloud-based services.

As great as these mobile devices may be, however, there’s still a very strong need for full desktop computing experiences in business environments. And in that great circle of ongoing compute evolution, we’re now seeing a new generation of server-based, graphics virtualization-powered, cloud-based computing solutions enabling a whole new round of virtual clients, thin clients, and other remote computing models.

Some of the early work in this area was enabled with AMD’s virtualization-enabled server-focused GPUs. Early versions of virtual desktops could only virtualize the CPU, and not the GPU, so the first efforts to virtualize GPUs in servers several years back were a critical step forward.

More recently, nVidia’s Grid 2.0 efforts are bringing a second generation of workstation-level graphics to servers and virtual desktops. Today’s announcement by Microsoft and nVidia of support for Grid in Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing platform extends the range of options that companies now have to use new computing models to deliver desktop experiences.

Businesses can now choose to deliver desktop capabilities from their own internal servers, from shared external servers, from 3rd parties that offer “desktops as a service,” and several other variations on these basic themes. More importantly, IT departments are able to deliver an experience to their end users—both inside and outside of the company’s physical walls—that can truly match what only standalone PCs and even workstations were once able to do.[pullquote]IT departments are now able to deliver an experience to their end users—both inside and outside of the company’s physical walls—that can truly match what only standalone PCs and even workstations were once able to do.”[/pullquote]

This is key, because for all the benefits of the virtual client/thin client computing model—particularly on security, management of the devices, management of the applications, and operating systems running on those devices—the actual end user performance often suffered.

Agonizingly slow screen redrawing, tepid browsing experiences, and other productivity-killing hassles turned some early thin client installations into painful experiences for end users, as well as the IT departments who chose to deploy them. Thankfully, numerous improvements along every stage of the virtual client computing chain have made those types of experiences a distant memory.

Improvements in the performance of the thin client devices themselves, from vendors such as Dell/Wyse and HP, to enhancements in VDI architectures and protocols from Citrix, VMWare, and Microsoft, to software and hardware refinements on the compute, storage, and network stacks within data centers, have all come together to deliver a significantly more usable virtual client/thin client experience. Plus, thin clients are no longer limited to desktop devices—there’s more and more experimentation with clamshell-styles and other mobile form factors.

As a result, there’s an expanding range of companies from industries well beyond thin client stalwarts, such as health care, financial, and government, who have started to embrace the virtual client/thin client computing experience. Mainstream companies in industries of all types and sizes continue to explore and invest in these new evolutions of thin clients and virtual clients.

Admittedly, the virtual client/thin client story is not a new one, and for some IT decision makers, the devices may bring back painful memories. Nevertheless, as critical refinements are made to these virtual client computing models, it’s worthwhile for companies to reassess their stand on virtual clients and thin clients and give them a fresh new look. They might be surprised at what they find.

Published by

Bob O'Donnell

Bob O’Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a technology consulting and market research firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.

125 thoughts on “The Rebirth of Virtual Clients”

  1. Thank you for this article. I’ve also been studying virtual client technology recently, because I’ve been wondering what role it might play as devices running mobile OSes (hopefully) move into the corporate IT workspace.

    With the iPad Pro, there has been renewed interest in how and when iOS (or Android or WinRT) could replace PC OSes in the workspace. However there are still quite a lot of significant hurdles, and in many cases, users will at least occasionally have to use software that runs on a desktop Windows OS. I have been wondering whether virtual client technology might smoothen the transition. Users could use apps running on the mobile OS most of the time, and when they need to use legacy Windows apps, they could simply connect as a virtual client to a server which runs these apps. With desktop-as-a-service, even small- to medium-companies could benefit from this.

    Please let me know if you have seen any activity in this area.

    1. As far as products are concerned, they’re here: Teamviewer, Citrix and VMWare all have Android clients, some with bells and whistles: TeamViewer also does PC-to-Android for support, VMWare also does hosted apps, masquerading individual remote apps as local instead of pushing the whole remote desktop.
      Also, $15 AMIduOS lets you run Android apps on Windows/MacOS, so the reciprocal issue is taken care of too.

      Not sure about market penetration though.

      1. Yes, that certainly seems to be the case. I haven’t used any virtual client solutions myself (except for the occasional remote controlling of my Macs), but they seem to be not-so-bad. Regarding market penetration, I don’t have any data, but judging from the investments that major companies are making, I wouldn’t be surprised if the market for virtual clients in general is already quite lively.

        It’s interesting how even Google has now validated the MS-Surface form factor with the Pixel C. I wonder if we are starting to see the stars align.

        1. Form factor has never been much of an issue with Android: support for varying formats is built into the UI devkit, so unless you go to great lengths to bypass it… Tablets have always been available in 16:9, 16:10 and 4:3 formats. Chinese OEMs do seem to slavenly duplicate whatever 1st-tier OEMs, especially Apple, are doing ^^
          I’m fairly sure the Pixel tablet will be very marginal. Everyone seems pretty underwhelmed. I’m actually getting worried Google is losing the plot, not only re their own devices, but about moving Android forward, especially upward out of phones. UI reskins only go so far…

          1. True that technically, from factor has not been an issue at the OS level for Android. The only problem has been to get developers to use it (and maybe the compromises that have been made in designing a scalable UI, but that’s a different subject).

            What has changed however is that the competing OS vendors themselves (Google and Apple) have adopted the Surface form factor for their flagship tablet devices. I find that very interesting.

            As for the Pixel C tablet, it has made some interesting product decisions that are clearly different from what Microsoft and Apple made. The small screen size is particularly interesting as well as the pricing. Whereas the original Pixel was clearly a high-end Chromebook, the Pixel seems to be positioned as a low-end convertible relative to the Surface and iPad Pro.

          2. Apple has been playing with the tablet/pen/keyboard form factor since the 90s. Check out the eMate. And I’ve used my iPad 2 in a keyboard case since day one, it’s such a great combination, touchscreen + hardware keyboard (and I’ve always used a stylus for specific apps).

            I think this is a case where the hardware and software are finally good enough that Apple can deliver something like the iPad Pro and have the experience be really great.

            Microsoft got a lot right with the Surface, but there’s enough wrong with it I don’t see it setting the world on fire, so to speak. But with more products along these lines, everyone should get better, learning from each other, trying new things, taking good ideas from each other. I love this form factor, I want a 17 inch iPad Pro Plus!

          3. Yes, I’m sure.

            The question that many people have been asking since the introduction of the iPad Pro is, how well these Surface form-factor devices will do in the enterprise. I agree that the improvements in software and hardware are key, but ultimately, what is holding them back seems to be the requirement to run legacy software and systems.

            This is why I am wondering if virtual client software in particular may play a vital role during the transition period (which can be very, very long). If so, it could marginalise the benefits of running legacy Windows app on a tablet as with Surface Pro, and could favour whichever mobile OS is best supported by the vendor, which supports various desktop configurations (multiple monitors) and which is easiest to manage in a corporate IT environment. The adoption of virtual client software could hugely influence the future market share of mobile OSes in the workplace.

          4. I think you’re right that virtual client software will play an important role for some companies during a transition period. But some will grok the long term cost savings of moving their processes to modern mobile platforms now. The relative ease of creating custom iOS apps should accelerate adoption. In that sense virtual client software will only matter during the transition time. The question is how long that transition will be. I would bet on shorter rather than longer, software moves faster today than a decade ago.

  2. “the era of mobility, where smartphones have become increasingly powerful
    compute devices. Arguably, however, smartphones (and tablets) have
    actually become next generation thin client/virtual client devices, with
    much of the computing experience they deliver coming from cloud-based

    So they’re increasingly powerful, to the point where the latest iphone beats the latest macbook on some benchmarks. But they’re also somehow becoming thin clients?

    I think the contradictions in that statement highlight the fact that the whole thin client/thick concept has become a moot point and a false dichotomy, kept alive only because certain businesses have built their livelihoods upon each model of computing.

    History doesn’t move in circles, it spirals — you come back to something vaguely familiar, but at the same time utterly transformed from how it was the last time. There are some things for which it’s a good idea to offload computing from the device in front of the user, and other things for which that’s never going to be a smart decision. Which means, pragmatic computing platforms like IOS and Android are increasingly blending the two paradigms to deliver the maximum utility to their users.

    Which things are best done locally and which are best done centrally is subject to change depending on the computing power & storage capacities of the local vs remote computers, and depending on the bandwidth, latency, and reliability of the connection between them. However, the tasks we require of our computers tend to stay relatively constant over time. New tasks keep getting invented, but the old tasks don’t really change all that much: note how Microsoft Office’s feature set today is essentially unchanged from the feature set of Office 15 years ago.

    So the real news here is that computing hardware has advanced to the point where the businesses flogging the thin client model think they can put forth a thin client version of certain office- (and thus Office-) oriented computing tasks that will finally pass muster with users, and thus pass muster with businesses that are less security- and control-obsessed than their traditional thin client customers, and that have, until now, given thin client solutions a pass because the UX was so horrible.

    1. I understand some of your concerns, but in most business environments, the complicated set of applications and services they need to deliver almost demand virtual desktops for some of their users. Sure, if you could build a business infrastructure from scratch you could come up with more elegant solutions, but that’s just not reality. Plus, you can’t ignore the importance of screen size–even 12″ tablets aren’t big enough for a lot of the work that people have to do in business environments.

      1. It might be fun to see a 12-inch iPad connected to 4 Bloomberg-type monitors, displaying a stock analysis app running on Windows inside a virtual desktop hosted on a remote server. I actually expect it to run extremely well.

  3. I’m really unsure about that. Is there any data, anywhere, about the percentage of MIPS and terabytes available (or used ?) remotely vs locally ?
    Both are raising in the absolute, but I’d hazard that local consumption is rising much faster ?

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