When many people look at replacing their desktop computers (PC) or laptops for a thin client, confusion can arise when sales people use the term thick client to describe desktop computers and laptops.
What is the difference between thin client vs thick client? The difference between a thin client and a thick client is a thin client uses a remote computer to do its application processing, whilst a thick client does the application processing itself by running applications locally. The Thin client uses a stripped down operating system that only needs to do minimal operations like capturing mouse movements, key strokes and creating updates to the desktop from information sent from the remote computer. Whilst a thick client needs a full operating system to run applications.
Thin client computers are designed differently to thick client computers in that they require less processing power, memory and limited storage. Whilst thick client computers need better resources like powerful processors, adequate memory, storage like a hard disk and an operating system to be able to manage all the resources.
Thin clients have lightweight operating systems, designed to run in less intensive configurations and provide the functionality to pass data like keystrokes, movements and screen updates to and from remote computers where the applications are run.
Let’s take a detailed look at what thick client and thin clients are.
What is a Thick Client?
Thick clients also known as fat clients, can run applications themselves, such as word processing, spreadsheets to web browsers. These applications are installed on the thick client device and use the processing power, memory and storage of the thick client to work.
The thick client accepts the users mouse movements and keystrokes as input to the applications being used and then sends updated changes to the users monitor.
So, when the user presses the right button on their mouse, the thick client realises this input and sends this to the application. The application opens its context menu and the thick client updates the users display, showing the context menu.
Applications are installed on Desktop PCs and use the processing power, memory and storage of the Desktop PC to work.
Applications are installed on laptops and use the processing power, memory and storage of the laptops to work.
Applications are installed on tablets like Apple’s iPad and Android Pixel tablets. The applications use the processing power, memory and storage of the tablets to work.
Applications are installed on Smart Phones like Apple phones and Android phones, using the processing power, memory and storage of the Smart Phones to work.
What is a Thin Client?
Thin clients cannot run applications themselves and rely on remote powerful computers known as servers to do their application processing for them. Applications like word processing, spreadsheets to web browsers are installed on the servers and use the processing power, memory and storage of the servers to work.
The thin client accepts the users mouse movements and keystrokes as input and sends the to the remote server where the applications are. The remote server then sends updated changes to the thin client and the thin client sends these changes to the users monitor.
So, when the user presses the right button on their mouse, the thin client realises this input and sends this input to the remote server where the application is.
The application on the remote server opens its context menu and the remote server sends the updated change in the display to the thin client. The thin client then updates the users display, showing the context menu.
Terminals like Dell Wyse 3040 and HP t430 are specific thin client devices with minimal hardware and form factor (size). They have a microprocessor (CPU), memory and can have some local storage, typically flash memory. They run an operating system like Microsoft Windows IoT, or a custom Linux based operating system like ThinStation.
Zero clients are also known as ultra thin clients and don’t have any processing units, memory or any storage. They don’t have any operating system either and instead they have special microchips to decode and render remote communications sent to and from the remote servers.
The decoding and rendering microchips work with one of the remote communication protocols like Citrix ICA, Microsoft RDP or VMWare PCOIP.
Low-performance hardware (a thin client does not need a high processing capacity), such as out-of-date computers can be used to create thin clients, making thin client an ideal technology for institutions that still use old computers or have limited maintenance staff and a tight budget.
As most thin clients run remote desktop software, such as Citrix Workspace (formerly Citrix Receiver), VMWare Horizon Client and Microsoft Remote Desktop Services client (RDS), the same remote desktop software can be installed on repurposed PCs. Which means that you will still be in a position to see the familiar desktop environment that you are accustomed to.
Difference Between Thin Client and Thick Client
The table below can help to give a clear picture of the differences between thin clients and thick clients:
|Thin Client||Thick Client|
|Definition||Software that depends on a remote server for its features. An example of a remote server is a cloud platform||The software which allows most features to run directly on a device|
|Network Latency||A fast and robust network connection is required for it to function properly||It may operate with a slow network connection or even no connection at all|
|Offline||Functions don’t work||Functions normally work in most cases|
|Data||Data is stored in servers||Data is stored locally|
|Intensive Applications||Graphically Intensive applications can record poor performance as they rely on the speed of the network||As there’s no network reliance, intensive applications can perform better|
|Workspace Control||The user’s workspace is controlled centrally||The user can set up their workspace as they wish (suitable privileges required)|
|Local Resources||Utilizes limited local resources, such as memory, disk, and computing power||Consumes more local resources|
|Centralised Management||Centrally managed and controlled||Managed locally with some centralised management|
Table 1: Thin vs Thick client comparison
Typically, thin clients aren’t convenient for all situations. That is because they have to be connected to a network most of the time and if this network doesn’t have the capacity to deal with the information sent by the thin client to the remote servers, the thin client user experience suffers, as the user is unable to work productively.
The screen refreshes slow down, so the delay in updating any changes like the mouse position, keyboard inputs take several seconds instead of milliseconds.
With thick clients the network latency only slows down any applications using the network (like pulling data from a remote server into a spreadsheet), leaving the locally installed applications to function.
Without network connections the thin client cannot connect to the remote servers, so they themselves become unusable. Users simply won’t be able to login as the thin clients connect to authentication services and without network connectivity, these will be unavailable.
Thick clients on the other hand, can have cached credentials, so even without a network, it’s still possible to login. As the applications are locally installed on the thick client, they are still usable.
Thin clients don’t have any storage capability for storing user data, so all this data stays on the remote servers the thin client devices connect to. This makes it also easier to back up data as there’s no need to include any of the thin client devices in a backup strategy as you would with thick client PCs.
Graphically Intensive applications require good network connections as there are many screen updates to and from the thin client to the remote servers. Without a good network connection, these updates slow down and instead of taking milliseconds, they start to lag, taking seconds instead.
User can have far more control over their workspace on a thick client, when compared to a thin client. They can, subject to privileges, install applications, change display settings and do a whole host of other customisations.
Whilst the thin client user has a very limited ability to customise their desktops and can’t install any applications themselves. As the applications need to be installed on the remote servers and these have other thin client users on them.
Any application installation could disrupt these other users and if done incorrectly cause the remote server to crash. Specialists with skills in installing applications on remote servers are required instead.
Some people may also be reluctant to give up their control over desktop applications, therefore, it is essential to assess the functionality of thin clients to see if they are right for your needs.
Thick clients utilise more of their local resources like processing power, memory and storage when used, whilst thin client utilise more of the resources of the remote servers they connect to.
Providing only minimal local resource utilisation to take mouse and keyboard inputs and update screen refreshes on the display. This means the thin client doesn’t have to be as powerful as the thick client to work effectively.
A thin client has a centralized set-up, which makes it easy and convenient to manage and maintain. This makes it also easier to troubleshoot, administer the network, and even monitor other features in the system.
Where are thin clients used?
Thin clients make an excellent choice where using thick clients like PCs becomes difficult to maintain. Remote offices are good candidates for thin clients, as well as call centres to retail settings, where the reliability of thin clients makes them easier to support.
Cloud Desktop as a Service (DaaS)
With the popularity of cloud computing showing no signs of slowing down, the thin client makes an excellent candidate to leverage Cloud Virtual Desktops. These desktops are run in the cloud on powerful servers and the thin client connects to these remote servers and displays the interactions between the user and the virtual desktop.
Thin clients act as dumb terminals for more powerful remote servers whilst thick clients can act alone, allowing applications to work with poor or limited network connectivity.