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Security for virtualized datacentres

Sysadmin blog Next year is Wyse’s 30th anniversary. The company rose to fame during the 1980s with terminal emulation thin clients, and although it had a brief flirtation with own-brand PCs it is its focus on thin clients that has made this company famous.

Today, Wyse specialises in the client side of remote computing and desktop virtualisation. Partnering with companies such as Microsoft, Citrix and VMWare has enabled it to build low-power embedded systems tailored to the needs of remote workers. When I say low power, that is something of an understatement: the C90LEWs I have in service pull less than 7W under full load, which is nearly 90 per cent less power than the desktops these systems replaced. Even factoring in the extra server load, my Wyse + Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) deployment has resulted in over 75 per cent power savings.

Whenever I have mentioned my Wyse deployment the topic has generated more interest than anything else in my mailbag. The main question is not “should all the desktops we are using essentially as thin clients be replaced?” but rather “with what shall we replace them?”

In our case, the Wyse thin clients have performed brilliantly. The flavour we bought was Windows Embedded Standard 2009 but Wyse thin clients come in Linux ThinOS and Windows 7 Embedded versions as well. Ours were reasonably cheap at about $500 (£340) a pop and do pretty much exactly what they say on the tin.

There are some niggles. One problem is combining video and RDP. We purchased the Wyse TCX suite, software that speeds up certain video Codecs or flash and also supports things like USB pass-through. In theory, Wyse will offload the video and flash acceleration to the thin client hardware you are using, allowing you to use multimedia through an RDP session in a seamless fashion.

When it works, it works well. I have watched a 720P movie over a WAN link with TCX. Real world usage is another story. The TCX suite causes IE in my Windows 7 VMs to randomly crash. Similarly, it only seems to accelerate a narrow band of video Codecs and then only when played within Windows Media Player. I ended up abandoning it for all but USB pass-through and using VLC on the local thin client for those rare instances in which my users required video.

That brings me to the big compromise. The C series Wyse clients are woefully underpowered, If you use a barcode scanner to enter information into an RDP session you absolutely must set your RDP connection’s “Apply Windows key combinations” to “on the local computer.” Similarly, without some nearly impossible alignment of Codecs, proper video drivers and using Windows Media Player, video greater than 720p just isn’t going to happen. But Wyse does have a far beefier line, the R90s, which are ready to handle anything I can think of throwing at them.

The good news is that these devices are designed from the bottom up to be centrally managed and imaged, running with their entire file system set as read-only. The thin clients all plug into the Wyse Device Manager (WDM). I bought myself an extra “development” Wyse client and simply turn the write filter off, make any changes I need to this master device and then copy the image to the WDM server. There are then a great many options for pushing this image down to the appropriate clients, from scheduling to forcing a system to reboot or even popping up a message on the screen, giving users a fixed time to save their work before the device restarts for imaging.

The ability to manage the entire fleet with a few clicks is a huge time saver. Combined with the zero moving parts and low power consumption, I have a set of desktop thin clients that get the job without fear of hardware failure. For the first time in a very long while I don’t have to think about the devices sitting on the desks of my end users. That is absolutely grand. ®

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