After having seen what distinguishes a thin client from a PC and some reasons or conditions for the adoption of this type of device in a profitable way, it’s clear that thin clients are a particular type of computational device but that basically don’t stand out excessively from a PC.
Two aspects in particular make the difference:
- their hardware features, oriented towards longevity and reduction of consumption in the face of essentiality in sizing and performance calibrated for specific uses, and
- their software features, consisting of minimal operating systems, suitable for the specific type of device and particular control and management functions determined by the particular scenarios of use and by the need to manage large infrastructures of devices of this type.
For this reason, thin clients are not always the best tool for every use case, in particular if the IT infrastructure and business applications are not oriented to a client/server model (where end users use centralized applications in the Cloud, through the web or desktop virtualization environments) or if the needs of the workforce are highly inhomogeneous or the needs for performance in the use of digital devices are very differentiated and flexible, for which the use of PCs or specific local applications are recommended.
However, as mentioned above, there are also some software features and related functionalities that characterize thin clients. For this reason, there may also be “hybrid” cases where, in the face of a differentiation of the workstations with the use of several different hardware (as well as potentially high-performance consumer hardware, such as laptops or PCs and perhaps even thin clients, where possible) a software substrate is used and uniforms the management of the entire machine estate to the thin client paradigm. In this case, centralized management and control features typical of the thin client area will be common on all workstations, albeit used by PC or laptop and, where necessary, combining access to centralized resources and applications also to the use of limited local applications to specific instances peculiar to reality and which require greater first-hand computing power.
For this reason, in this article, we will introduce various use cases of thin clients, abstracting from the fact that these are “pure thin clients” (including hardware) or only “software” thin clients, based on different architectures, but controlled with automation and centralization functions.
We list below some concrete cases of use of thin clients and then we’ll summarize in an infographic whether they are typically hardware or also/only software or hybrid cases.
Digital kiosks in business, industry or commerce and logistics – to easily create and manage digital workstations for monitoring and controlling of particular process phases (production or service). An example are industrial workstations that may also require specific hardware resistant to environmental conditions (dust or temperature/humidity) and perform simple control applications of machines (e.g. via touch screens) or input/output (think of the loading/unloading of goods with code readers), used via the Cloud with a web interface or by accessing a virtual desktop with company applications (e.g. information systems); or even simple monitoring information stations that describe the progress of an equipment. In this case, quick access may also be required without the need for “typing” (e.g. via personal or role cards).
Kiosks in Public Areas or Digital Signage – They can be very simple digital devices, often used in commerce or in hospitality and service areas available to the public, where static or dynamic information is available (e.g. self-service stations to book a service or to search for a place or information) typically usable via the web, or multimedia content is offered to the public, such as information videos or advertisements (typical of Digital Signage). In these cases, specific hardware (totems or large screens already integrated into the device) or simple thin clients connected to the screen or interaction part (e.g. touch screen) may be required, where it is possible to request the blocking of any other peripheral or source.
Banking and Insurance – Uniform workstations, which must both guarantee maximum security (with protection from external attacks and incorrect use by operators (e.g. use of USB sticks or free navigation) and a work environment that is always uniform and standardized, perhaps with the use of specific peripherals (e.g. electronic signature or counting devices) or with typical requirements of a professional profile, both in the finance area and in the utilities or Public Administration area (trend monitoring stations with the need for multi-monitors, technical management, etc.).
Healthcare – Workstations that allow the staff to access to virtual environments specialized by role and department, managed centrally and remotely by the IT department (very large and sometimes even branched or delocalized structures), which must be easily “maintainable” and supported, absolutely stable and seucre (for this reason the free use of PCs by users is not recommended). They must make highly customized applications available (by accessing different virtual environments) differentiated according to the users (e.g. diversification between doctors, nurses, admin staff…) and guarantee, in fact, in addition to data security/privacy (absolutely centralized) also the speed of access and support for peripherals.
Public Administration, Large Companies, Utilities, Call-Centers – With the need to make available hundreds – if not thousands – of shared workstations (accessible by different operators at different times or days) but always uniform and where attention to costs capital (hardware acquisition) and operational (consumption, personnel and IT management effort) is maximum. In this case, the workstations can also be very simple and typically targeted towards a very uniform virtual or web environment, with the use of standardized peripherals (e.g. headphones or webcam) and limited freedom/flexibility for users (standard and secure use of the workstation).
GDO (Large Distribution) and Logistics – In these contexts, companies find themselves having to deal with the infrastructure of different offices, each with many workstations (points of sale with support or cash points, distribution, sorting,… ) in which it’s necessary to ensure uniformity of IT tools and it is essential to be able to automate the set-up of new workstations and remote and centralized management on all maintenance, updating and configuration locations. In this case it is often useful for the hardware to be uniform among themselves to maximize reusability and uniformity, and it is often necessary to also optimize the programming and distribution of the update packages remotely to the local offices, differentiating them by need (e.g. timetables of operation) and minimizing access to the public network and timing through the use of local gateways.
Universities/Schools/Libraries/Research – The Education sector is a prominent example of a use case of thin clients, including hardware ones, given that laboratories that require a high number of even very simple workstations that allow access to centralized digital didactic environments or tools, accessed in terminal/client mode, also to increase security and ensure (given the free and always different access) the constant regeneration of the working environment. This is why the use of software features such as disk protection is widespread, so that local disks are never modified with individual user data. There is also a widespread need to quickly reconfigure environments (for use in different subjects, classes or purposes, such as lessons, exams or exercises) and to be able to set up different environments, both generic (by subject) and specific for users (teacher, student,…), for this reason, extensive use is made of infrastructures based on Virtual Desktop (VDI). Still in the university and research context, many experimental uses of thin clients or similar devices are also spreading, chosen for their minimal and cost-saving characteristics, to be distributed and installed massively to act as data collection points (eg. sensor data collectors).
Mobility – An increasing number of realities and use cases today require ways to provide their end users with easy access to centralized corporate resources, even when they are on the move. This is why it’s important to find environments that can transform a mobile/portable device (such as notebooks), sometimes even personal or provided in an emergency to the user, in a uniform and compliant tool with company standards. Flexible adoption software tools are required but they need to be able, when used, to enable device configuration and transformation capabilities, activating uniform environments, focused on access to corporate resources and tools (offered via VDI or in the cloud), and respectful of corporate security regulations even if performed on private or domestic networks. Some examples can be found in software agents or operating systems that can be used in live mode (with boot from USB), possibly also able to protect the device from any changes (flying data and only centrally stored).