ARMed Thin Clients

I have done a survey of thin client products lately and in the last year a lot has changed. ARM has moved into thin clients, the ultimate low-power domain. Thin clients are ideal for situation where we can ask the client machine to do less and the server to do more. ARM, having reached the performance of low-end x86 stuff in much less power is ideal for the modern fanless thin client. Cloud computing is exploding the usage of thin clients.

A year ago prices for good thin clients in China were around $80. Now, you can get the latest ARMed thin clients for less than $50. The lowest price I have seen so far was around $25. The diversity of machines has increased as well. There are GNU/Linux, CE 6, and a bunch of others running on the thin clients. There are ARM, Atom, Via and others available.

I expect shopping for thin clients has become more difficult. Lots of new players mean lots of quality-control issues. The range of players is great. Some produce a few thousand units per year, others millions. ARM and Linux certainly have permitted better performance at a lower price. Clockspeeds on the low-end have increased, nearly double, with most being around 500MHz. 300MHz thin clients were marginal for screen refreshes and the like. The newer versions of ARM should not have those problems.

ARM is not the same as x86 so we may have to learn new ways of booting/updating the software for these thin clients but figuring that out only needs to be done once and we should be settled. I expect keeping software up to date will be a little more difficult because devices may be one-off and not supported widely but I expect some consolidation of the chips will develop and major suppliers will provide a “standard” for a wide variety of thin clients.

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The range of manufacturers is very broad. It seems to me that thin clients have become a commodity product. I don’t see consolidation happening for a while as it did around 2005 when demand for thin clients tanked. There is a huge and growing market for thin clients. Capacity for production seems to have multiplied in the last year or so. This is consistent with predictions by Gartner.

About Robert Pogson

I am a retired teacher in Canada. I taught in the subject areas where I have worked for almost forty years: maths, physics, chemistry and computers. I love hunting, fishing, picking berries and mushrooms, too.
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3 Responses to ARMed Thin Clients

  1. Ray says:

    In that case, yes, it would be a thin client.

  2. The question is not about where the disc is but where the computing is done. I often turn a regular PC into a thin client just by installing the “thin client OS” on the drive, booting it and shutting down the drive after it is no longer needed. Many distros have a file, /etc/rc.local. It is the last thing executed by the init process. I just insert X -query gnulinuxterminalserver.lan and it will boot to the login screen of the terminal server. The only processing done locally after booting is displaying the screen and sending the clicks to the server. Another way to do it is to define icons/menu items to look like this:

    ssh -Y someserver someapplication

    and the users local desktop runs applications on a server. You can then get servers to specialize and do a better job. The single point of failure goes away except on an application by application basis. “someserver” could also be a cluster with failover…

    One could argue that a thick client is just a thin client wasting resources like needing a hard drive on each client when only a few are needed. Same goes for computing power. It is silly to have a parking lot full of Cadillacs idling all day just so you can ride in style. It does make sense to have a small fleet with chauffeurs and dispatchers sometimes. I think thin client should be the default and the case should be proven for any exception. That would simplify and cut costs of IT while improving performance.

  3. Ray says:

    Wouldn’t the term “diskless node” be more accurate? A thin client would have the server do all the processing, while a “diskless node” would have the client do the processing.

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