The Thin Client Advantage

February 6, 2008 Justin 4.2: Resource Management

One Of These Buttons Will Get Me Out Of HereIf you’ve never heard of thin clients, maybe this analogy will help. Let’s say you have 5 computers in your house. One day, you decide to yank out all the hardware from each computer. Disk drives, RAM, and processors go flying. Then you stuff all the collected hardware into a single empty computer, to make one really powerful computer. Lastly, you connect each of your 5 monitors, keyboards, and mice to this really powerful computer with very long cords.

Now you can still work from each computer in your house, type on the keyboard, use the mouse, open your word processor, play your favorite games, and so on, but you’re no longer using each computer’s internal hardware. Each one is connected to this new powerful computer you made. And each computer still runs just as fast as it used to, even faster if not all 5 are being used at the same time.

Now imagine we have an EXTREMELY powerful computer capable of handling 100 of these bare-bones computers in a school. And that we connect through a network instead of a bunch of long cords lying around. That’s how thin clients work. They’re “thin” because they have very little hardware of their own, and “clients” because they depend on a server to run their operating system and applications.

Thin clients work EXCEPTIONALLY well in a school setting, and can be a lifesaver in schools with strapped budgets. Any old computer, even Pentium 2s and Pentium 3s, can be transformed into a powerful workstation, because they don’t have to run a single application themselves. What’s also cool is that since all the applications are physically located on only system, we pay for ONE license of Windows, or Photoshop, or whatever software we want to use, rather than 100!

It just makes sense for schools to consider thin clients, regardless of their budgets. Thin clients have actually been around since the 1990s (and even earlier in concept), but only within the past several years have they become practical for schools and school districts, and the trend has been growing steadily as more and more schools adopt the technology. Weber School District has already deployed thin clients in some labs (see this blog post from the district’s Director of Technology).

Cost Savings

Consider a hypothetical example of just how much this can save a school. On the one hand, we could:

  • Purchase 100 fully-featured workstations for $500 each.
  • Purchase 100 all-new licenses for the operating systems at $100 each.
  • Purchase 100 all-new licenses for our commercial software we want to use, including stuff like Photoshop, Acrobat, etc. Let’s say the total of all our software comes out to $400 for each workstation.

The resulting cost of all this? $100,000.

Now look at an example using thin clients. Instead of the last option, we could:

  • Purchase 100 bare-bone workstations with minimal hardware, or receive used equipment donations of seemingly obsolete systems (since we barely need anything for a thin client), at an average cost of $50 each.
  • Purchase ONE license for the operating system, for $100.
  • Purchase ONE license for Photoshop, Acrobat, etc. for $400.
  • Purchase a powerful thin client server to manage each workstation, for $2000.

The resulting cost of equipping our entire school with fully-featured workstations using thin clients? $7500.

We just saved over $90,000! In just one school we are literally saving thousands in hardware and software costs. And in an entire school district, the savings can easily venture into the millions.


The benefits of using thin clients include, but are not limited to:

  • Cost only a fraction of what we normally would pay for all our hardware and software.
  • Faster workstations, since they are being booted off a high-end server, rather than using their own memory and hard drive.
  • Easier maintenance, since only one computer (the thin client server) typically needs to be maintained rather than 100 separate computers spread throughout the school.
  • The near-elimination of licensing fees for commercial software. For example, rather than buy 100 licenses for Adobe Photoshop and Windows XP to install on each workstation, we need to buy only ONE.
  • When you need an upgrade in your school, rather than buying 100 new $1000 workstations, you only need to spend around $2000 to beef up your servers to accommodate all the computers. You do the math.

I hope you can see the advantages of using thin clients in a school. This is revolutionary stuff we’re talking about, and it’s taking schools across the world by storm.

Here’s some extra reading on how thin clients have impacted educational technology. This is by no means a comprehensive list of articles:

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