From the July 2001 issue of Entrepreneur

Despite the name, thin clients aren't overly diet-conscious customers-rather, they're stripped-down computer systems that run applications remotely from a server. They forego all the "fatty" aspects of regular desktop PCs and are able to operate without hard drives, screaming-fast processors, removable media drives or souped-up RAM. Although thin clients still use regular monitors, the devices themselves look more like vertical pancakes than computer towers.

Thin clients are attractive for businesses that don't want to-or can't-employ a platoon of IT professionals to baby a slew of regular desktops. Because most software is deployed on the company server, the IT load job is a lot lighter. Upgrade the programs on the server, and you upgrade all the thin clients as well. Upgrade the server hardware, and the thin clients reap the benefits. It all adds up to tech-support savings.

Sometimes, employees like to tinker with their computers by adding programs, making downloads and changing settings. But with thin clients, employees can't do much more than work with the programs they have access to on the server, because usually there are no drives and the main operating system resides elsewhere. On the other hand, any employee can access his or her files from any machine in the office simply by logging on to the server.

Keeping files secure and backing up data is much simpler when everything resides on one machine. Plus, the life expectancy for a thin client far exceeds what you would expect from a normal PC. There are fewer parts to break or wear down, and all the real computing power comes from the server, so there's no need to have the latest and greatest processor in every client. Also, thin clients are faster to install than their desktop counterparts, and they cost less to deploy.

Before You Buy

Despite the benefits, thin clients are not for everyone. For instance, you wouldn't want to saddle a temperamental, ZIP drive-using graphics professional with one. Thin clients are more appropriate for a call center that takes orders than a design firm. Employees who demand the power and flexibility of a PC won't mix well with restrictive thin clients.

And although one central machine is convenient and easy to service, it's still vulnerable to potential problems. If the server goes down, it will take all the thin clients with it. Also, as with most networks, when there's unusually high demand on the server, everything on the network will slow down.

Most of the thin clients in our chart feature 233MHz processors. That may sound slow by today's Pentium IV standards, but the processing power that matters most resides on the server, not the clients. A faster processor would only net you a slight performance increase. Likewise, thin clients require less RAM than typical desktop PCs, but their Ethernet connections must provide fast access to the central server.

When figuring costs, remember to add $200 to $300 for a 17-inch monitor for each machine; our chart only contains the thin clients themselves. The server you choose will depend on the number of thin clients you install, what programs they'll be running and the demands of your business. Server prices begin at $1,500 and vary widely. That's where it pays to consult either an independent firm or the company from which you plan to purchase your arsenal. Dell, for example, offers thin-client consulting services as well as servers and devices.

If you think thin clients will fit your business, do some research before replacing your current desktops or outfitting new workstations. They just might pay your company back with lower implementation costs and fewer IT headaches.