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Mar 06 2017

Windows 10 on Thin Clients: Deliver Best Results with Scout Agents (Part 1 of 2)

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Is it possible to install and run Windows 10 on dedicated thin clients? This question is still hotly debated by CIOs and IT departments worldwide. Microsoft for its part has been supporting the hardware architecture for the better part of two decades and continues to do so with the Windows 10 IoT OS release. However, two questions still remain to be answered: which embedded versions of Windows 10 are available for medium- and large-sized organizations, and which usage scenarios do they fit (covered in this part)? And what is the best way to manage the devices it could run on (see part 2 of this post)?

Background
Microsoft's efforts to support thin clients and related infrastructures can be traced back to the first half of the 90s when it developed "Pegasus," an OS variant that was finally released as Windows CE at COMDEX 1996. Originally designed for PDAs and other early mobile devices, Windows CE used a hybrid kernel that could cope with as little as 1 MB of main memory and other limitations of these platforms. Such low hardware requirements also made it suitable for use in industrial devices such as manufacturing equipment. Roughly three years later, Microsoft released Windows NT 4.0 Embedded, which could run on ATMs, vending machines and household appliances such as air conditioners and laid the groundwork for the wider Windows Embedded family of operating systems.

Following the release of its latest OS, Microsoft rebranded the Embedded family as Windows 10 IoT, which links the platform to its predecessors while indicating that it can accommodate a wide variety of hardware platforms, ranging from edge devices such as sensors through cash registers to industrial control systems. In the enterprise context, thin clients are typically regarded as smart "edge devices" that enable creating and/or capturing data before transferring it to backend servers, thus turning these thin clients into viable components of a typical IoT scenario.

Windows 10 IoT Editions and Their Capabilities
Windows 10 IoT is currently available in three different editions optimized to fit into different usage scenarios:

  • Windows 10 IoT Enterprise is a binary equivalent to Windows 10 Enterprise bringing full functionality, manageability and security to IoT-based installations. It is designed to power devices used in areas as diverse as healthcare, manufacturing and retail, to support mission-critical line-of-business applications and perform specialized functions in a secure, reliable and streamlined fashion. Windows 10 IoT Enterprise is fully compatible with the Win32 API and works with virtualization solutions from both VMware and Citrix on traditional as well as modern thin clients.
  • Windows 10 IoT Mobile is a binary equivalent to Windows 10 Mobile Enterprise, inheriting all its characteristics such as prompt access to applications, native support for multiple user profiles and peripherals (e.g. barcode scanners) and advanced lockdown capabilities to protect confidential data. Windows 10 IoT Mobile is designed specifically for smartphones and tablets, currently runs only on ARM processors and SoCs, and is optimized for Universal Windows Platform (UWP) applications.
  • Windows 10 IoT Core is optimized for smaller devices with or without display, with an aim to "bring intelligence to the edge." Put differently, Windows 10 IoT Core is the most basic and flexible edition, running on ARM as well as x86 processors and SoCs, and covers a wide variety of use cases ranging from Digital Signage through IoT gateways to providing the human-machine interface in industrial and home automation scenarios.

Based on its delivery model, update mechanisms and tight integration with the company's Azure platform, Windows 10 has often been described as Microsoft's most cloud-friendly operating system. This reliance on cloud computing is even more conspicuous in the IoT versions; in fact, the whole idea of an overarching IoT operating system only makes sense if all devices are permanently connected to the cloud – regardless of whether it is to store data, access applications or perform analytics at the backend.

What's the Difference Between Windows 10 and Windows 10 IoT?
While the Windows 10 IoT editions share similarities with the mainstream Windows 10 OS versions, it must be noted that they are subject to certain limitations to ensure more security. Therefore, a lot of innovations that were introduced with Windows 10, such as the Edge browser, will not be available in the IoT versions. These will instead continue to rely on what Microsoft sees as stable and mature applications, for example Internet Explorer. Likewise, customers who wish to use Windows 10 IoT in an enterprise context, for example on business tablets, are not allowed to install full-fledged versions of Microsoft Office on top of the embedded OS. Instead, they will have to resort to VDI or cloud-based Desktop-as-a-Service solutions. But despite these obvious limitations, Windows 10 IoT Enterprise in particular also offers interesting enhancements one won't find in the regular editions. For example, the file-based write filter (FWBF) available previously in Windows Embedded has been retained. FWBF limits users' write access to sensitive storage media, typically prevents writes to one or more protected volumes, and caches all necessary writes to protected volumes in an overlay cache on a volatile store. Furthermore, FBWF can be also be configured to enable selective write-through operations where necessary (more on that in part 2).

This brings us to the end of our overview of Windows 10 IoT and its various editions. The second part of this blog focuses on how to manage thin clients based on this new OS with the help of Unicon's Scout Enterprise Management Suite® and Scout Agent for Windows.

Wolfgang Schestak

 

About the Author:

Wolfgang Schestak

Senior Product Manager FUTRO Thin Client Solutions, Fujitsu EMEIA

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