Windows 8 presents a big and mostly neglected opportunity for the IT infrastructure community: improved support for ARM thin clients, via the Windows Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) v8.0 (which is also available for Windows 7 SP1).
Despite the rather bad rap Windows 8 has received from some business-minded reviewers (in my mind somewhat unfairly), Windows 8 ARM thin clients offer price, power, and compatibility upsides that every IT purchaser worth its salt should be watching intently.
Over the last few years, the biggest players in the server industry -- Dell, HP, and IBM -- have all released thin clients priced around $250 USD per unit for low-end models to $650 USD for higher-end models. The idea of a thin client is to use virtualization to cut discrete hardware costs by ditching the traditional “fat” (and expensive) desktop client. In the thin-client scheme, the majority of storage and processing is handled by the server back-end, allowing for less-powerful, but far cheaper, client machines.
With Windows 8/Windows 7 SP1, Microsoft ups the ante on the software side with improved RemoteFX technology and peripherals support. Meanwhile, on the hardware side, an equally critical low-cost thin client revolution is occurring -- the arrival of ARM thin clients.
This is a big deal because ARM processors are among the cheapest in the industry, while being powerful enough for basic workloads and highly energy efficient -- all attributes perfectly suited for a thin client.
To compare the price of a potential x86 thin-client chip versus an ARM alternative, consider the dual-core Intel N2600 Atom (x86; 1.6GHz) cost of approximately $42 per 1K unit at launch last holiday season. Now consider that a 1.3GHz quad-core NVIDIA Tegra 3 (ARM; 1.3GHz) reportedly can be purchased in bulk for only $21 USD -- around half the cost.
Unsurprisingly, Dell (via Wyse) and HP have already announced upcoming thin clients based on ARM. IBM is keeping tight lipped, but given its deep software commitment to thin clients, it’s likely IBM may join the party as well. Even if IBM chooses not to partake in the hardware side, IBM is a key software partner of Dell’s Wyse, providing VoIP and other thin client technologies for the platform.
While Windows’ RDP is by no means the only thin-client-aimed remote desktop technology out there, the fact that it’s built on Windows significantly reduces applications compatibility concerns versus competitive Linux-based solutions, making it easier for business leaders to embrace the thin client. Now the hardware makers are adding an extra incentive to make the thin-client switch -- the availability of cheap ARM clients.
And that availability adds one more peripheral benefit -- competition. Intel has long dominated thin-client sales, so there’s been little price pressure, other than the base incentive for Intel to price the devices low enough to create a new market. With the arrival of ARM, Intel will surely be forced to bring its A-game.
Thus, expect Fall 2012-Winter 2013 to be a great time to consider testing the thin-client waters. I advise you to look at the upcoming ARM thin client lineup and see for yourself whether you can use this burgeoning new enterprise device form factor to cut your company’s discrete hardware costs.
— Jason Mick is senior news editor at the independent tech news site DailyTech.