Skip to content Skip to navigation Skip to footer

What Is a Thin Client?

Thin Client Definition

A common thin client definition is a computer that uses resources housed inside a central server as opposed to a hard drive. A thin client connects to a server-based environment that hosts the majority of applications, memory, and sensitive data the user needs. Thin clients can also connect to servers based in the cloud.

In many instances, a thin client computer is an effective replacement for a personal computer (PC). It can also be a superior solution, particularly because it enables an IT team to set up a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI). With a thin client setup, you can acquire new workstations for employees working remotely or in-house at a lower cost than if you give each one their own desktop. Further, you have the option to centralize your security solution by protecting the server the various thin clients connect to.

Thin Client vs. Thick Client

A thick client, or fat client, is what most would consider a “typical” PC or central processing unit (CPU). A thick client performs all of its data processing on its own. While thick clients are simpler in some ways, they also come with drawbacks.

A thick client costs more to deploy. With a thick client, you have an all-in-one system, and hence, you have to pay for the various components that come with it. Also, a thick client has many more moving parts, which results in additional disadvantages. For example, they are harder to maintain and are more likely to break down earlier, particularly because each component has its own individual life cycle. Thick clients consume more energy because each individual component has to be powered. Also, cooling down several thick clients may require more fan power than cooling a central server that provides for several thin clients, resulting in additional energy expenses.

However, a thick client also comes with more features. In some instances, additional features can be helpful, particularly if they support functions you may need at a later date. For example, if you need to deploy a memory-intensive application, a thin client may not come with enough memory out of the box, whereas a thick client is more likely to pack enough memory for more demanding applications.

Download the 2021 Gartner Critical Capabilities Report

ANALYST REPORT: 2022 Gartner® Critical Capabilities for Network Firewalls

Learn how Fortigate NGFW helps IT teams converge networking and security solutions to provide consistent end-to-end security across the hybrid networks.

Download the Report

What Are the Benefits of a Thin Client?

Thin clients offer several benefits that can improve the efficiency and cyber safety of an organization.

  1. Increased security: Security can be enhanced if you employ thin clients instead of typical PCs. The thin client itself is incapable of running software unless it has been authorized at the server level. This means that if three users were to accidentally begin a download of three different kinds of malware, they could all be blocked by the same firewall protecting the server each thin client is connected to. Also, if someone tries to save data corrupted with malicious code, they will be unable to do it on the thin client computer itself. They would have to put it on the server. If the server is protected, getting the malicious code onto it will be impossible, thereby protecting all thin client users from having their operations interrupted by malware they accidentally installed. In addition, it is easier to monitor a system based on thin client architecture because all endpoints connect to the same central server.
  2. Less cost: It is more effective to deploy thin clients than it is to deploy normal PCs. Thin clients do far less work than regular PCs, and therefore, they need fewer resources. A thin client will not have a high-end graphics card, for example, or an expensive hard drive for storage. It will also have less memory than a PC. Each of these components comes with considerable cost. Because thin client manufacturers do not have to invest as much in sourcing the various piece that a regular PC would require, they can pass these savings on to the consumer.
  3. More manageable: Thin clients are often easier to manage because all endpoints are connected to the same server. This means you can focus much of your management efforts on that one physical unit. Because one IT team member can handle routine tasks such as upgrading security software at the central server, several users can be serviced at once. This eliminates the need for IT staff to visit individual workstations for installation or troubleshooting.
  4. Scalability: Using thin client architecture, you can easily scale up through the deployment of virtual desktops. In addition to the benefits typical of a thin client setup, a virtual desktop environment enables you to allow users to bring their own device. The server used for the various thin clients in the office can also be used as a full-fledged virtual desktop base, giving seasonal workers or temporary contractors a simple way to connect and get work done.

What Is a Thin Client Used For?

A thin client is used for desktop virtualization, shared services, or browser-based computing. With a virtualized desktop setup, including one where each user has a remote desktop, each individual desktop exists within a virtual machine, which is simply a partition inside a centralized server. NComputing is a popular desktop virtualization solution. Several partitions exist side by side, and each one serves a different user. Each of these users has their own applications and operating system, similar to when they use a normal PC. 

The difference is that these resources are housed on the central server instead of on their individual devices. Further, as long as a device can connect to the server, it can make use of the resources that are run on it, allowing for greater flexibility and more agile deployment.

When terminal services are shared, the users at the various thin client stations can use the same operating system and applications because they are run from a central server. Users are limited with what they can do because all activity has to be approved by the IT department. This can benefit the organization, as user activity can be limited to the use of specific, safe, or protected applications.

With browser-based architecture, the application-related functions of a device are executed within a browser instead of via a remote server. While data processing happens on the thin client itself, software and data have to be accessed by connecting to the network.

How Fortinet Can Help?

To adequately protect several thin clients simultaneously, you need a centralized security solution that maximizes throughput so user activity is not hampered. With FortiGate, you get a next-generation firewall (NGFW) that provides web filtering, packet filtering, Internet Protocol security (IPsec), and support for virtual private networks (VPNs) and secure sockets layer (SSL) inspection. You also get deeper inspection capabilities that provide intrusion protection and safeguard your central server from malware attacks.

FortiGate provides enough throughput for many thin clients to connect to the central server at the same time. The FortiGate 6500F, for example, provides 100 Gbps of threat protection and 130 Gbps of SSL inspection throughput.


What is an example of a thin client?

The Wyse 3040, which comes with a composite audio jack, three USB ports, a display port, and an RJ45 Ethernet port, is an example of a thin client. It is 1.1” tall, 4” wide, 4” deep, and weighs 0.53 pounds.

What is a thin client used for?

A thin client is used in architectures built around server-based environments, where a central server does most of the computational work and stores data. The thin client then becomes an access point for a user who needs to connect to the server. Because of these attributes, thin clients are often used when an organization wants to scale quickly and cost-effectively while centralizing and simplifying their security solution.

Can a thin client be used as a PC?

Technically, yes, a thin client can be used as a PC. However, you would need to use an external storage device like a thumb drive or external hard drive to store any significant amount of data. Also, without a powerful graphics card or DVD/CD-ROM drive, the capabilities of a thin client used as a PC are limited.