Thin clients aren't very exciting, and for a reason: they're designed to allow remote access to servers, usually with a Citrix, Microsoft, or VMware client. The folks at Dell WYSE have spiced up the category by building a thin client on top of Android, and getting it down to a form factor only slightly larger than a USB memory stick.
The result is a cool combination of technologies with interesting potential -- and a few important limitations. Network managers who have been unhappy with typical thin client solutions should consider the WYSE Cloud Connect, which brings the flexibility of Android and wireless connectivity into their cloud computing or VDI deployment.
What is it?
The WYSE Cloud Connect looks a lot like a USB thumb drive, except that the connector sticking out of the side is an HDMI plug. Connect it to the HDMI port of your monitor, feed it some power, and that's about it. If the monitor has an MHL (Mobile High-Definition Link) HDMI port, this will power the device. Otherwise, there's a USB connector on one side for power.
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WYSE Cloud Connect also has a MicroSD slot that can be used to bump up the internal 8GB of storage to 72GB (with a 64GB microSD card), useful for some (but not most) applications of the device, such as digital signage. Spec-wise, Dell told us that the WYSE Cloud Connect has a Cortex-A9 ARM CPU with 1GB RAM, draws less than 2.5 Watts, and is running Android 4.1.2. With a list price of $129 (not including keyboard, mouse, and display), it's an inexpensive piece of hardware.
The first time the WYSE Cloud Connect boots, it displays instructions on the HDMI display and walks you through the process of pairing a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard (although these are not required for operation), then it checks in with Dell's Internet-based Cloud Client Manager service, which is required to manage the WYSE Cloud Connect.
Connectivity is via 802.11 wireless: both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands are supported, offering a better and more predictable wireless experience in enterprise environments. Wireless communications using Enterprise WPA2 (username and password) worked fine, although the configuration dialogs were unnecessarily complicated and would be confusing to non-IT professionals. Fortunately, Wi-Fi is one of the configuration settings available in Cloud Client Manager, so enterprise secure Wi-Fi settings can be pushed to the device centrally -- once it's connected to some kind of Wi-Fi.
Once booted, the WYSE Cloud Connect acts a lot like a typical Android device because, well, it is one. Users can launch any loaded Android application, including the built-in Citrix and Microsoft Terminal Services (RDP) clients and the Google Chrome browser. However, there is a big gotcha: any Android application that requires a touch display, microphone, or some other device attributes can't be loaded from the Android App Store, even if it doesn't need some of those attributes.
Thus, we weren't able to grab either the Juniper or Cisco VPN client for our testing, because the Google Play Store wouldn't allow us to download them, claiming they were incompatible with our device. (Dell's own SonicWALL client and Check Point's VPN client both were available).
Having only a limited set of applications available greatly restricted our testing and the overall flexibility of the WYSE Cloud Connect -- at least until Dell figures out how to resolve this issue. They told us they were working with Google as well as some application developers. For now, if you want a full Android tablet to connect to a big monitor, WYSE Cloud Connect isn't that device.
Remote Terminals... it works. What else?
We started our testing using both Citrix and Windows Terminal Services (RDP) through the built-in clients provided by Dell. General visual performance was snappy in Citrix-land, with no real discernable difference between the WYSE Cloud Connect and a desktop PC. With Windows Terminal Services using the included Pocket Cloud RDP client, the WYSE Cloud Connect offered just a tiny bit of visual performance lag, not enough to be really annoying, but certainly noticeable at moments. Of course, some of that could be the application and perhaps a different RDP client would work better.
With a good three-button mouse and keyboard, there's not a lot to say about using the WYSE Cloud Connect as a remote terminal. Functionally, the thin client offered what we'd have expected, although we learned very quickly not to use CTRL-ALT-Delete at any time -- which causes an immediate reboot of the WYSE Cloud Connect. The usual thin client restrictions, such as local storage and printing, apply here. WYSE Cloud Connect does include audio output capabilities that tested out just fine.
We didn't test the VMware VDI client, also included with WYSE Cloud Connect.
With basic functionality out of the way, we looked at web-based applications. WYSE Cloud Connect comes with Google Chrome browser, and the standard Android "Browser" browser. We ran into some issues fairly quickly. While Google Docs worked very well, we were unable to make SSL connections with some other cloud-based web applications. The reason? Some cloud-based web applications have fairly old SSL configurations. Combine that with security zealotry on the part of the Android developers that blocks older encryption algorithms, and you have an interoperability failure. Of course, this is more of an Android issue than a WYSE Cloud Connect issue, but to an end-user trying to connect to an existing web application, it doesn't matter.
We also signed up for Microsoft Office 365, but found that Microsoft won't support the WYSE Cloud Connect. We were able to view documents, but couldn't run the Office 365 applications in either of the delivered browsers.
A random tour of home-oriented applications, such as YouTube, revealed no real failures. If you want to buy a single WYSE Cloud Connect for a browser-only experience at home, well, it's pretty slick and certainly doesn't waste a lot of power. But obviously that's not what Dell is aiming for here and not the core design goal for the WYSE Cloud Connect.
Management with Cloud Client Manager
WYSE Cloud Connect requires Dell's Internet-based Cloud Client Manager, a web management tool that serves as the policy configuration and control tool. Cloud Client Manager comes in two flavors: the free "Starter" edition for up to 25 devices which has minimal policy management, and the subscription-based pay-per-device "Professional" edition with all the bells and whistles. For our testing, Dell offered use of the Professional edition.
Cloud Client Manager let us create a policy covering device passwords, a short list of blocked applications (Camera, YouTube, Android Browser, Google Play, and Facebook can be blocked), establish Wi-Fi credentials and SSIDs, define a VPN connection, configure RDP servers for the PocketCloud Connect application, and set a few other device parameters.
With the Cloud Client Agent installed (by default), policies are pulled from Cloud Client Manager and enforced on the device. Cloud Client Manager is Dell's Mobile Device Management (MDM) tool. The version we used includes support for more than just the WYSE Cloud Connect devices and the Android operating system, including IOS, ThinOS/Xenith (another thin client operating system), and Dell Mobile Workspace (a mobile device container tool that allows for separation of work and home mail, calendar, contacts and browser environments on mobile devices). Because we were only testing WYSE Cloud Connect, we only used the Android part of the on-line Cloud Client Manager.
Cloud Client Manager only takes a few moments to learn. Policies are defined for groups of devices, and managing policy settings takes only a few moments, except for the complicated Wi-Fi configuration.
We had no real problems with the functionality of Cloud Client Manager, and policies, such as Wi-Fi definition and application restrictions, showed up quickly and were enforced by the WYSE Cloud Connect device.
Cloud Client Manager can also be used to restrict the device by putting it into Kiosk mode (only one application can run) or LaunchPad mode (creating a short list of all allowed applications and blocking all others, including native Android applications such as "Settings"). Network managers deploying WYSE Cloud Connect for thin client applications will likely use one of these two modes, rather than allowing unlimited Android functionality for end users. This important feature worked very well.
Some parts of Cloud Client Manager, though, need better integration. For example, although Cloud Client Manager talks to the Google Play store for Android applications, it let us create "required" applications for the WYSE Cloud Connect that weren't supported. The same issue occurred with VPN definitions: Cloud Client Manager knows about Dell and Cisco VPN clients, but defining a Cisco VPN connection doesn't do any good if the Cisco VPN client isn't included or supported.
At the same time, while Cloud Client Manager let us define Windows Terminal Servers for the included Pocket Cloud RDP client, these settings didn't automatically propagate into the client. So we had to manually re-link the Pocket Cloud client to Cloud Client Manager, even though there's an agent on the WYSE Cloud Connect that should have done this for us.
Thin client heaven or gimmick?
Dell's WYSE Cloud Connect fits somewhere in-between. The form factor of the device is fantastic, and opens up many opportunities for network managers with specific challenges. But more important than the form factor is the Android operating system. Opening up the thin client using an industry standard operating system like Android isn't a new idea, but Dell is the first major vendor to offer this type of openness and extensibility.
While we found some flaws in this initial delivery, the potential for extending and adapting thin clients on this hardware platform makes the WYSE Cloud Connect worth considering. Network managers challenged by cloud computing projects with unusual requirements or in need of more-than-average customization should take a close look at Dell's offering.
Snyder, a Network World Test Alliance partner, is a senior partner at Opus One in Tucson, Ariz. He can be reached at Joel.Snyder@opus1.com.