A Closer Look: Zero Client Solutions

By Frank Ohlhorst  |  Print this article Print

Virtualization has changed the cost structure of the data center, and now it can change the cost center of managing a fleet of end-user clients. Here’s a look at the promise of zero client technologies, a list of the players, and how they can make a difference for IT organizations.

A Closer Look: Zero Client Solutions

Zero client hardware usually consists of a small box that connects to a keyboard, mouse, monitor and Ethernet connection. The zero client device contains network protocols, allowing each of these interface types to be supported over a wired or wireless IP network without a local PC or thin client. Zero clients are connected over the network to applications running on a PC or server located elsewhere on the IP network. Zero clients when paired with a VDI (Virtual Desktop Infrastructure) solution become a quick, secure way to deliver applications to users.

Zero clients offer several advantages over "fat clients", which are also known as traditional PCs. With zero client technology, power use can be greatly reduced. Where a fat client may use as much as 250 watts of power, a zero client device may use as little as 5 watts. What’s more, zero client devices cost significantly less than a traditional PC or even a thin client device. Zero client solutions are often priced well under $200 per seat.

By combining zero client computing with VDI, administrators can reduce the number of physical PCs or blades and run multiple virtual PCs on server class hardware. With that change, all of the management, support, continuity and failover benefits of a virtual infrastructure are extended to desktops throughout the organization. That situation also bodes well for MSPs that are looking to delve into the hosted PC space.

Fat Client

Thin Client

Zero Client

Interface Ports


Serial: 0-8+

USB: 2-8+


PS/2: 0-4

Display: 1-16


Serial: 0-2

USB: 2-4

Parallel: 0-1

PS/2: 0-2

Display: 1


Serial: 2-8+

USB: 2-8+

Parallel: 0-1

PS/2: 0-4

Display: 1-2



Hot (35-275W)

Many moving parts


Warm (15-40W)

Fans on some


Cool (5W)

No moving parts

Operating Systems

Windows XP / Vista

Windows 2000

Large: 128-512 MB RAM


High virus risk

Windows CE

Embedded XP

Moderately large:

16-256 MB RAM

Moderately stable

Modest virus risk


Small: 4-32 MB RAM



No virus risk

Client Licensing

Windows XP

Windows CAL

Windows CE

Windows CAL





User interface


User interface


Terminal emulation

Remote Access


Terminal emulation

Application Support

PC Dedicated

Native support

RDP / ICA to server

Must be rewritten

VDI to Server

No modifications

Price per seat


$400 to $2000


$350 to $1000


$99 to $300

Currently, only a few vendors are playing in the zero client space. Those vendors include Pano Logic, Digi, Wyse, N-Computing and Teradici. Each of those vendors approaches zero client technology in a unique fashion.

Frank Ohlhorst Frank J. Ohlhorst is the Executive Technology Editor for eWeek Channel Insider and brings with him over 20 years of experience in the Information Technology field.He began his career as a network administrator and applications program in the private sector for two years before joining a computer consulting firm as a programmer analyst. In 1988 Frank founded a computer consulting company, which specialized in network design, implementation, and support, along with custom accounting applications developed in a variety of programming languages.In 1991, Frank took a position with the United States Department of Energy as a Network Manager for multiple DOE Area Offices with locations at Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL), Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPL), Argonne National Laboratory (ANL), FermiLAB and the Ames Area Office (AMESAO). Frank's duties included managing the site networks, associated staff and the inter-network links between the area offices. He also served at the Computer Security Officer (CSO) for multiple DOE sites. Frank joined CMP Technology's Channel group in 1999 as a Technical Editor assigned to the CRN Test Center, within a year, Frank became the Senior Technical Editor, and was responsible for designing product testing methodologies, assigning product reviews, roundups and bakeoffs to the CRN Test Center staff.In 2003, Frank was named Technology Editor of CRN. In that capacity, he ensured that CRN maintained a clearer focus on technology and increased the integration of the Test Center's review content into both CRN's print and web properties. He also contributed to Netseminar's, hosted sessions at CMP's Xchange Channel trade shows and helped to develop new methods of content delivery, Such as CRN-TV.In September of 2004, Frank became the Director of the CRN Test Center and was charged with increasing the Test Center's contributions to CMP's Channel Web online presence and CMP's latest monthly publication, Digital Connect, a magazine geared towards the home integrator. He also continued to contribute to CMP's Netseminar series, Xchange events, industry conferences and CRN-TV.In January of 2007, CMP Launched CRNtech, a monthly publication focused on technology for the channel, with a mailed audience of 70,000 qualified readers. Frank was instrumental in the development and design of CRNTech and was the editorial director of the publication as well as its primary contributor. He also maintained the edit calendar, and hosted quarterly CRNTech Live events.In June 2007, Frank was named Senior Technology Analyst and became responsible for the technical focus and edit calendars of all the Channel Group's publications, including CRN, CRNTech, and VARBusiness, along with the Channel Group's specialized publications Solutions Inc., Government VAR, TechBuilder and various custom publications. Frank joined Ziff Davis Enterprise in September of 2007 and focuses on creating editorial content geared towards the purveyors of Information Technology products and services. Frank writes comparative reviews, channel analysis pieces and participates in many of Ziff Davis Enterprise's tradeshows and webinars. He has received several awards for his writing and editing, including back to back best review of the year awards, and a president's award for CRN-TV. Frank speaks at many industry conferences, is a contributor to several IT Books, holds several records for online hits and has several industry certifications, including Novell's CNE, Microsoft's MCP.Frank can be reached at frank.ohlhorst@ziffdavisenterprise.com