Dell Hybrid Client: Seamless Cloud-Optimized Computing With Ubuntu
Dell Hybrid Client: Way More Capable Than Your Dad's Thin Client
While COVID-19 can claim some credit for more workers than ever performing their job duties remotely over the course of this year, the fact is the corporate world has been moving in that direction for a long time. At the same time, more businesses are trusting their data with private datacenters or public cloud hosting solutions. The two-fold struggle for IT departments has been how to securely give employees access to cloud apps, in-house data servers, and applications, while also managing a fleet of PCs when that fleet is outside of the corporate firewall. VPNs can help but there's a lot more to it than that. In fact, VPNs are just another variable that has to be considered, and often that can be as much a hindrance as they are a help when users are left to set them up for themselves.
While the cloud can generally be loosely described as "someone else's servers," hosting data elsewhere comes with great effort and cost savings to IT departments, while making it easier to adapt to a work force working from anywhere. These days, the apps live in three basic locations: the public cloud (think Amazon Web Services, Azure, or Google Firebase), the private cloud such as an enterprise-maintained datacenter, or locally on a user's workstation. Managing all of those endpoints is a daunting challenge for admins because often times they require separate administrative consoles and technologies. What if all that could be merged together to simplify deployment and ease management of users and applications?
Dell would offer that it has an industry-first solution in its Hybrid Client that can achieve exactly that goal.
Instead of maintaining a list of browser bookmarks, mapped network drives, VPNs, cloud storage solutions, group policies, and installed apps separately, IT admins can push it out all at once. Better yet, all this centralized access control doesn't have to be performed on a terminal server that has to do all the processing away from the user's desk. Instead, everything is controlled through a centralized service that can be hosted by either Dell or the business, locally.
What Exactly Is A Dell Hybrid Client (DHC)?At its core, Hybrid Client is a combination of Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) and hardware. It starts with the Dell systems like its OptiPlex 7070 Ultra platform or Wyse 5070 thin clients, running a highly-customized Ubuntu 18.04 Long Term Support (LTS)-based operating system. However, Dell representatives also told us that basically any Dell system that runs Linux is a good candidate for Hybrid Client, including sleek notebooks like the XPS 13 Developer Edition. Since these systems arrive ready to deploy, this distro should also keep deployment costs down.
Dell has poured quite a bit of extra work into that Ubuntu 18.04 LTS distribution, including a custom user interface that grants users access to the apps they need, WMS Pro, and Dell ProSupport software. But why Linux? It's to keep the costs down. Dell says that Hybrid Client's Ubuntu distribution goes easy on the memory requirements, and saves on the Windows license, which equates to a fairly hefty equipment cost savings. The OptiPlex 7070 Ultra system we used to test drive the service gets by with just 8 GB of memory, and we never felt any pressure on that RAM.
Linux does have one glaring weakness, though: compatibility with Windows-only software. Fortunately, DHC supports a variety of VDI solutions from the likes of Citrix, Microsoft, and VMWare to run Windows applications seamlessly. That might work for some desktop apps, including Microsoft Office, but it might not be for everybody. Running high-powered content creation apps like Adobe Photoshop or Premier over a terminal connection does not seem all that enjoyable, at least not currently, though bandwidth constraints for hosted apps are becoming less of a bottleneck every day.
Virtualization is one piece that has to be maintained outside of the Wyse Management Suite, but pushing configurations to users is very simple. Dell also believes that as more and more work is done online, and as Microsoft faces stiffer competition from competing collaboration software (Google's GSuite for Business, for example), there will be growing pressure from customers to bring feature parity to the web version of Office 365. But until such changes materialize, managed virtual desktop interfaces can help bridge the gap.
The big push for DHC on powerful hardware, though, is the internet. The web delivers tons of apps these days, particularly in the collaboration and document management space. Thanks to the proliferation of client-side rendering and processing in so many web apps, the relatively powerful hardware in that OptiPlex 7070 Ultra comes in handy. Web apps come in all shapes and sizes, and DHC seems directly aimed at front-line call center reps, retail and point-of-sale systems, healthcare providers, and marketing pros using tools like Adobe's Experience Cloud, among others.
Follow-Me Takes User's Config Optimizations And Data Anywhere They GoLastly, Dell also extols the virtues of its Follow-me Workspace. Essentially, this is a centrally-located roaming profile allows employees to use a DHC-powered notebook on the road, and come into an office with a separate desktop -- also using Hybrid Client -- that has all their documents and apps right where they left them. So much of this experience has to be managed manually with traditional notebooks and desktops, like syncing documents between systems with OneDrive or DropBox or managing two different systems' worth of apps, updates, and group policies that might only get applied if the user connects to a VPN. There are competing tools that do a lot of the same things, but Dell has done a good job aggregating all this administrative functionality in a single, clean portal.
In the end, Hybrid Client should be a pretty flexible way to provide ample computing power to many types of users. Executing cloud-delivered applications locally brings a big performance boost over a thin client or a pure virtual desktop solution. At the same time, providing a cloud-managed method for receiving applications and security tools through a single endpoint makes management easy, like a virtualized environment. Dell says it's in this for the long haul, and anticipates investing heavily in this arena for years to come, as businesses continue to transition from traditional local servers to cloud-hosted applications.
Test-Driving Dell Hybrid ClientWe're testing Dell Hybrid Client on an OptiPlex 7070 Ultra, which is a sleek, all-in-one combination of a small form factor PC that hides inside a monitor stand. We've reviewed this hardware in-depth before, and this system is very similar to our previous test unit. Dell granted us a Wyse Management Suite account with some seats. Registering the system was a straightforward and quick process, after which the system grabbed a handful of updates and then we were off to the races.
Managing users is also pretty straightforward, as long as you already have an Active Directory domain hosted either on-premise or in Microsoft Azure. We tested using an Azure AD Free account, which has limitations, but that's nothing a little money can't solve. We used the Wyse Management Suite to import our AD users from Azure and could use the system just like it was a Windows machine with access to all of our organizational resources. This is analogous to joining a domain with a Windows PC.
The difference, of course, is that Hybrid Client's management features are all integrated into Wyse. Everything related to adding software to our terminals, managing group policies, locking down the USB ports, deploying updates, and much more was in a single administrative portal. The Hybrid Client's policy list holds myriad options including the applications that are installed, which VDI portals are available, down to whether Bluetooth and USB connections are allowed.
Hybrid Client's desktop is a pretty blank slate with the app launcher from the Ubuntu 18.04 Unity desktop interface appearing on the right. There are a couple of apps pinned to the dock on the left, and then a nine-box at the bottom, which shows all available apps on the system. This is all identical to a typical desktop running Ubuntu Linux 18.04, and that's intentional. Dell isn't out to reinvent the UI. On the contrary, the secret sauce is built into Dell's add-on tools.
The File Explorer replaces Ubuntu File Manager and grants access to the local file system (if the user has permissions) along with any mapped network resources and cloud storage that the configuration manager might have set up. This handles all kinds of functions, including copy, cut, paste, and even creating new files. To be clear, this isn't exclusive to File Explorer—apps can still make their own files—but it helps centralize file management for users who want to keep things simple. Users can create any file type so long as there's an app installed that can handle it. By default this is limited to just Office file types for Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.
A Flexible Walled Garden Defined By ITThird party apps are pretty barebones out of the box. Once we get past Chrome, Firefox, LibreOffice, and the Image Viewer, we've run out of default third-party apps on our Hybrid Client setup. However, any Dell-signed application in a Debian-style .deb package can be deployed from the Wyse Management Suite. Hybrid Client is a thinly-walled garden in that only packages that have been signed by Dell and added to Wyse can find their way onto systems, as outlined in the Hybrid Client documentation. Customers can have Dell sign just about any package they want, and this prevents users from installing anything they want on the Hybrid Client, which helps enforce security and corporate software policies.
What happens when an app isn't available for Linux? Hybrid Client works with a variety of virtual desktop interfaces, including Citrix, Microsoft Hyper-V, and VMWare. If multiple applications installed across VDI, cloud hosting, and on the device can handle a file type, admins can configure a policy to choose which app delivery method should handle it. Users may not want to connect to a Citrix-hosted app just to open a JPEG file, for example, so admins can tell Hybrid Client to use local apps first.
Overall, the setup and deployment process was pretty straightforward. We managed to set our test client up from scratch, creating an Active Directory domain in Azure, and assigning users in an evening. Hybrid Client's extensive and straightforward how-to styled documentation was sufficient for most of our testing. The only stumbling block was the domain itself—there are no local accounts in a Hybrid Client system, beyond the standard guest account, which gets wiped after every logout. We thought there might be a way to link Wyse users, but that's not the case at this point. These are meant to be used with domains, which any organization large enough to consider this solution would already have.
Centralized management, distributed client horsepower, and a variety of form factors combine to make a compelling corporate IT solution. This flexibility allows Hybrid Client to service all kinds of users from heavy workloads that would normally require full-fledged Windows PCs to office kiosks and warehouse inventory systems. Dell seems to be in this for the long haul, too. The reps we interviewed were adamant that they saw hybrid solutions like DHC as a long game that might be slow to get started, but will service a large swath of businesses in years to come as more organizations start hosting their data in the cloud. We can definitely see the utility and ease of administration being very attractive, but media creation apps may still be better suited to full desktop experiences, at least in the short term. Dell thinks that even this functionality will make its way to the web sooner rather than later, though.
Dell's software on top of Ubuntu 18.04 is where the real magic happens. A combination of Wyse Management Suite and DHC's security and policy deployment enhancements make sure users get a consistent experience across any number of devices they might need to use. It doesn't matter if those applications are installed locally, hosted in the cloud, or virtualized, DHC can handle them all with relative ease. We were impressed with the polish we found in the administrative portal, and we think that most admins will welcome the break afforded by managing everything in one place.
For organizations that want to move towards a single centralized platform, we think Dell Hybrid Client is worthy of consideration. DHC is a disruptive technology, as well as a solution that's more capable, configurable, scalable and the antithesis of the traditional thin-client in many ways.