Going on a thin client diet

The PC is here to stay – but it has lots of little friends now

We may not be in the post-PC age, but we’re definitely in the ‘plus everything else’ era. A gaggle of new mobile devices has gathered to join the PC, and it’s making things more complex for IT administrators. Smart phones were already heavily in the enterprise, and now, tablets are gaining traction too. How can they cut through the management headache?

IT admins have to manage all of these devices to keep them secure. They also have to ensure that users get access to the tools, applications and data they need to do the job.

Thin clients seem to be a significant alternative for many, if our recent survey of Reg readers is anything to go by. These boxes, which are lighter, cheaper, more manageable endpoints, offer various benefits as alternatives to PCs. Respondents identified benefits in several key areas, including:

Security

Thin clients don’t store data locally, meaning that even if a mobile one gets left in the back of a cab, you’re not going to wind up talking to a journalist because you’re being sued by the ICO. Eighty-three per cent of Register readers saw at least a moderate benefit in this area, with almost half pointing to it as a “huge” positive.

Freeing up office space/supporting hotdesking

Not having data stored locally makes it far less worrisome to carry thin client devices around and even switch between offices. Centralized storage and applications can make employees more portable, and flexible. They can work at home, for example, which can help reduce office costs. Almost eight in ten respondents were warm to hot on this prospect.

Manageability

One of the biggest benefits of thin clients is the lowering of the management burden. This is twofold: software problems are easier to troubleshoot, and hardware problems effectively go away.

Fat clients go wrong for all kinds of reasons. Users do something daft with the operating system, such as trying to change the registry file based on advice from their brother in law Brian. Or installing ‘Fred’s Superlicious Windows Enhancement Shareware’ on it, which promises spinny 3D icons, but ties up your L2 support staff for an afternoon. With a thin client, where all the smarts are on the server, there’s nothing to tweak.

On the hardware side, thin clients are more or less disposable, making the remediation process far easier and less costly than the repair process for a fat client.

Other benefits included easing desktop migration issues, smoothing the deployment of new applications, and making legacy applications last longer.

“But I like my iPad, boss”

In spite of these benefits, some companies are turning to non-PC devices that bring along lots of baggage. CompTIA’s most recent survey on this, in 2014, found that of those companies providing devices, three quarters provide smart phones and six in 10 provide tablets, meaning that many workers are operating in a ‘three-device’ environment.

IT departments often aren’t happy letting users bring in their own gizmos, though. CompTIA found that 45% of small firms with fewer than 100 employees didn’t do this at all. BYOD was a no-no in other companies, too; around half of them forbade it. Another half followed a corporate-owned, personally-enabled (COPE) approach, in which the company buys and provides the device, but lets employees use it for their own purposes (within reason, obviously).

Raising the mobile management bar

This all creates a headache for IT admins, who are turning to mobile management platforms to help them cope. The latest industry buzzword for managing post-PC devices is enterprise mobility management (EMM), which seems to be superseding mobile device management (MDM) in jargon land. The latter is becoming just a small part of a bigger solution set, still providing core capabilities such as configuration management and remote wipe. As this evolves into EMM, it layers other things on top.

“We’re talking about common platforms to define and enforce policy around devices, applications, data, user authentication and expense,” said Grant Sainsbury, senior VP of solutions for Dimension Data in the Americas.

As mobile operating systems become more enterprise ready and the platforms to manage them get more sophisticated, the goal is to have the same kinds of management capabilities for mobile devices that we’ve had for PCs, but tailored to suit a more mobile crowd. A lot of these EMM offerings are running in the cloud now, reflecting the fact that the devices aren’t in the office a lot of the time.

Setting policies

Installing management tools like these will bring their challenges. Tasks like getting in-built secure email messaging systems to work with your email servers can be niggly and time consuming. But perhaps the biggest challenge will be thrashing out the usage policies for these non-PC devices.

Policies break into two types: the static documents containing acceptable usage policies that employees may never read, and policies that are coded into management tools so that they can be properly enforced.

Coding basic security configurations for mobile devices into management tools may be relatively simple, but things are likely to get more complex as the management system you’re using expands in scope. When you get issues such as into roles-based application and service access, who pays for the device, and how that governs what they can do with it, you’re looking at far more detailed policy settings.

“There are a lot of organisations that made an investment in mobile device management and are then caught in analysis paralysis as they try and work out what their policy should be,” Sainsbury said. So this will take a lot of thinking through.

No wonder that almost two thirds of Reg readers (64%) were moderately to enthusiastically committed to thin clients in their end-user strategy in the future. They may have their challenges too, but for structured workers with simple tasks to manage, they can offer some clear benefits. ®

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