What is a thin client?

A thin client is a device with limited computing capacity. Your users can use it to perform more complicated, compute-intensive tasks by exchanging data with a centralized server. Traditionally, organizations had to purchase expensive desktop machines for employees to perform business-related tasks. Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) technology has replaced this with virtual desktops that your users can access using thin client terminals. Thin clients use fewer resources and are easier to manage and secure compared to traditional desktop devices. Some organizations may also choose to deploy their clients as applications that users can run on their personal smart devices.

What are the benefits of a thin client?

A thin client is a minimalist endpoint device that you can use to connect to and access centralized servers. With this easy access, there are several benefits that thin clients offer.

Reduced costs

A thin client has fewer hardware requirements than other computers. They have less processing power, storage, and memory. This lack of additional hardware reduces manufacturing and purchase costs. As the hardware is simpler, they consume less power and are also cost-effective to maintain.

Enhanced security

You can keep your sensitive data secure when using thin clients. No data is stored on a thin client. So, there’s less of a chance of unauthorized data access if an employee loses their device. Disaster recovery and backup management is also centralized, so employees don't have to worry about losing their work.

Efficient management

Administrators can update and maintain thin client software with ease. As thin clients run from centralized management, you can streamline all maintenance tasks without the need to individually update all devices. You can batch update or use infrastructure as code tools to centrally maintain thin client environments. You can also scale up or down quickly by introducing more thin clients to the system or increasing the resources that the central system has.

What are the use cases of thin clients? 

Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) is the leading use case for thin clients. VDI networks store applications, data, and operating systems on a centralized server. Each thin client acts as the endpoint for users, providing a lightweight system that accesses all centralized resources.

You can use VDIs in several tasks, helping to increase efficiency by standardizing employee or user access. For example, you can provide thin clients to remote employees or contractors for specific projects. You can also use them for these purposes:

  • Deploy call centers at scale

  • Send to kiosks for reset between many temporary users

  • Grant access to virtualized legacy applications

Users get access to all the workflows they need, while you maintain complete control over data access, helping to increase security.

Read about VDI »

How do thin clients work?

A thin client can be either software- or hardware-based on your chosen approach. There are three main approaches.


Browser-based thin clients are ordinary devices that use web browsers to provide access to services. Your users access a web browser from any device and use it to then connect to web applications.

This thin client may have more processing power than normal, as some processing occurs on the thin client machine. However, the software and data come directly from the network.

Shared terminal services

Shared terminal services are for more simple tasks on a machine. You can use a thin client station that shares servers to create folders or run applications approved by IT.

Instead of accessing an entire desktop, your users access only specific applications that run on the server. Most of the time, this is a task-based system where your users log in to perform a task and then log out. 

Desktop virtualization

Desktop virtualization creates a virtual desktop with the operating system and all applications living on the centralized server. Your users will log in through a thin machine and then connect to the server to retrieve resources.

There are different types of virtualization:

  • Nonpersistent virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) users get a fresh virtual machine (VM) from a pool every time they log in. Changes are discarded after logout, which ensures a clean slate for each session.
  • Persistent VDI users are allocated a VM that retains changes across sessions, which provides a consistent, personalized environment.

How hardware-based thin clients work

Thin client devices contain minimal resources on their system but can establish a connection to a centralized server. Turning on a thin client initializes its hardware then connects it to a centralized server through UDP or TCP/IP. It then pulls resources from the centralized server to support tasks.

Users who log in on a thin client gain access to a virtualized desktop through VDI. The user can use the keyboard and mouse attached to the thin client, transmitting these movements to the server. The server receives the inputs and updates the virtual desktop to react to these changes. Thin client computing is the act of sending graphical changes in response to user input, helping to streamline virtualized interactions.

VDI software ensures that each user has a separate session, which helps to increase personalization and secure data. When a user logs out of their thin client, the desktop server then saves its state at that current moment. They can resume from where they left off whenever they log into another thin client. 

How do thin clients compare to other types of client models?

Thin clients are a lightweight solution for those wanting a cheaper way to access a centralized server. However, these are not the only client models available. 

Thick clients

Thick clients vary from thin clients as they have all their user data, applications, and operating system locally. They have these foundational resources so you can perform many tasks without drawing from the central server. While thick clients offer higher processing power and can help with resource-intensive tasks, they have higher upfront costs.

As thick clients have more local hardware and software, you may also have to update each machine individually. Because of this, thick clients have higher maintenance. 

Zero clients

Zero clients are streamlined machines that provide even fewer local resources and hardware than thin clients. They have minimal processing power, storage, and memory, as you mainly use them to connect to a virtual desktop. 

Because of their pared-down approach, they don’t consume much energy. Zero clients are cost-effective, easy to set up, and useful for environments that require several deployments. However, their simplicity also leads to less customization and an inability to support some types of multimedia.

How can AWS support your thin client requirements?

Amazon Web Services (AWS) offers Amazon WorkSpaces Family as a secure, fully managed, and reliable system of virtual desktops. With WorkSpaces Family, you can provide employees with a diverse range of virtual workspaces, maximizing the user experience.

As a cost-effective and scalable approach, you can use WorkSpaces Family for many purposes:

  • Secure the apps and data that you store on AWS servers instead of holding data on endpoint devices.
  • Boost productivity by offering a high-performance and globally distributed infrastructure for your users.
  • Facilitate remote work and provide hybrid access for your employees and remote workers.
  • Create virtual learning environments for educators, students, and staff. You can ensure everyone has the resources they need to succeed. 

Get started with virtualized desktop environments on AWS by creating a free account today.

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