Thin Client In client/server applications, is a client designed to be especially small so that the bulk of the data processing occurs on the server. Although the term thin client usually refers to software, it is increasingly used for computers, such as network computers andNet PCs, that are designed to serve as the clients for client/server architectures. A thin client is a network computer without a hard disk drive, whereas a fat client includes a disk drive. A Thin Client PC is a computer that depends heavily on some other computer (its server) to fulfill its computational roles. This is different from the traditional fat client, which is a computer designed to take on these roles by itself. The specific roles assumed by the server may vary, from providing data persistence (for example, for diskless nodes) to actual information processing on the client’s behalf.
Thin clients occur as components of a broader computer infrastructure, where many clients share their computations with the same server. As such, thin client infrastructures can be viewed as providing some computing service via several user interfaces. This is desirable in contexts where individual fat clients have much more functionality or power than the infrastructure requires.
Thin-client computing is also a way of easily maintaining computational services at a reduced total cost of ownership. The most common type of modern thin client is a low-end computer terminal which only provides a graphical user interface – or more recently, in some cases, a web browser – to the end user.
What are thin clients?
A thin client is a general term for a device that relies on a server to operate. It provides a display
device, keyboard and mouse and basic processing power in order to interact with the server. A thin
client device contains no moving parts such as fans or hard drives (in the case of a dedicated thin
client device). It does not store any of the data locally – it is very thin in features and functionality –
hence the term ‘thin client’.
A thin client often does not contain local storage and requires little processing resources. Thin client
hardware can be a converted old PC, a new dedicated thin client device or simply a new low cost PC
with a thin client OS installed.
Thin clients present a user with the same look and feel of a traditional desktop and can run any
software – Windows, Linux, UNIX, Mainframe, Java, etc. – allowing for easy integration with the
existing IT solution.
Reduced administration and end user support – Thin clients are far simpler to manage since the thin
Benefits from thin client computing:
High-security areas where data protection and security are important such as government offices,
law firms, etc.
Public use facilities such as Internet cafes which are virus-prone.
Environments with a tendency to user tampering such as public libraries and schools.
Companies that need to integrate different IT environments quickly, for example, when undergoing
a merger or purchase.
Desktops with frequent data and/or application changes.
Environments which cannot afford desktop downtime such as an airline check-in desk.
Companies with mobile workers who need access from anywhere.
Environments with complex software license management.
Administrative workers and support staff.
Re-purposing a PC as a thin client
The following options allow a PC to be used as a thin client – in some cases, even if it has no working hard drive:
Linux Terminal Server Project
Remote desktop software
Ultra-thin client, Zero client, or Clientless
Traditionally, a thin client ran a full operating system for the purposes of connecting to other computers. Some thin clients, such as the Sun Ray, use a simpler protocol for communicating display updates, and these are sometimes called ultra-thin clients or a zero clients, Their tiny operating systems merely initialize the network, begin the networking protocol, handle display of the server’s output, and transmit user input events. The full desktop is run remotely and the displayed graphics and text are compressed with either a remote display protocol such as PCoIP, or even just a video codec such as VP9 or Daala, and sent to the zero client. The client silicon is now much simpler and lower cost as all it requires is a video decoder and basic I/O.
A Run Time Environment (RTE) client contains task specific applications (e.g. Mozilla Firefox for Internet browsing) and only the minimal (often customized) underlying and supporting code (BIOS, firmware, kernel, libraries, plug-ins, etc.) to run only those applications. It contains all and only the code needed to accomplish its specific task, thus it is more than a zero client but less than a typical thin client computer. The RTE client does not have a general purpose operating system – it usually lacks shells (terminal windows), is not designed to be patched (updated online), has minimal connectivity to external resources, and is often found in read-only media (e.g. tamper resistant ROM chips, CD-ROM, etc.). Attempts to inject or run any other applications/processes/threads results in crashing the kernel (system). Due to the need to physically update the device, RTE clients are mostly found in stable environments demanding high security.
Web thin client
Web thin clients only provide a web browser, and rely on web applications to provide general-purpose computing functionality. However, note that web applications may use web storage to store some data locally, e.g. for “offline mode”, and they can perform significant processing tasks as well. Rich Internet Applications for instance may cross the boundary, and HTML5 Web Applications can leverage browsers as run-time environments through the use of a cache manifest or so called “packaged apps” (in Firefox OS and Chrome).
Examples of web thin clients include Chromebooks and Chromeboxes (which run Chrome OS) and phones running Firefox OS.
Chromebooks and Chromeboxes also have the capability of remote desktop using the free Chrome Remote Desktop browser extension, which means, other than being a web thin client, they can also be used as an ultra-thin client (see above) to access PC or Mac applications that do not run on the Chromebook directly. Indeed, they can be used as a web thin client and an ultra-thin-client simultaneously, with the user switching between web browser and PC or Mac application windows with a click.
Chromebooks are also able to store user documents locally – though, with the exception of media files (which have a dedicated player application to play them), all such files can only be opened and processed with web applications, since traditional desktop applications cannot be installed in Chrome OS.
Web thin clients are similar to RTE clients, but unlike first-generation RTE clients the operating system can typically be updated. Chrome OS, for example, automatically updates itself if its update servers (which are hosted by Google) are not blocked by a firewall – while still being tamper-resistant due to its use of Trusted Computing technologies.
Applications as thin clients
The notion of a thin client extends indirectly to any client–server architecture, in which case, a thin client application is simply one which relies on its server to process most or all of its business logic. This idiom is relatively common for computer security reasons. A client obviously cannot be trusted with the logic that determines how trustworthy they are, because an adversary can circumvent that logic. However, in web development in particular, many client applications are becoming fatter. This is due to the adoption of heavily client-side technologies like Flash and Ajax, which are themselves strongly driven by the highly interactive nature of Web 2.0 applications.
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