Windows Thin PC: Microsoft's free OS

Virtual PC

Jon Honeyball finds a budget route to move your office over to VDI

There’s still a lot of work to be done with Windows 7, and one major new initiative that might attract some interesting take-up is the availability of the Release Candidate of Windows Thin PC, a name that’s a bit of a mouthful even when abbreviated to the “RC of WinTPC”.

This new platform is a small, stripped-down version of Windows 7 designed to be installed on ageing legacy hardware, the sort that might run Windows XP well enough but that maybe isn’t up to the job of running a full install of Windows 7 and a full complement of Office 2010 on top of that.

The basic idea is that such a machine will boot into WinTPC and then connect to a server that will project a VDI (virtual desktop infrastructure) desktop session on to the local WinTPC platform. WinTPC is effectively built on top of Windows Embedded Standard 7 Service Pack 1 (another product name that trips lightly off the tongue), and in order to support the VDI capabilities it employs Remote FX for remote graphics processing.

As you’d expect, it also supports System Center Configuration Manager to allow system admins to configure and manage the thin-client devices remotely too.

Gasp, shock, horror! Microsoft giving away a free OS? This can’t really be happening

What’s perhaps most interesting about the WinTPC platform is that it’s going to be free. Yes, you heard that right: free. Gasp, shock, horror! Microsoft giving away a free OS? This can’t really be happening. Well, it is – albeit with a few restrictions.

First, Microsoft didn’t have any realistic hope of charging for it because you still need a licence for the OS session that gets projected on to your client, as well as for all the apps that it runs – charging for WinTPC on top would effectively be double-charging, once for the useful part (your VDI session) and again for the local bootstrap loader required to support it.

Second, since your desktop session is actually running on a remote server, WinTPC is of no use at all on its own, which means charging for it would take some cheek. And finally, it will be available only to Software Assurance licencees, so don’t expect to see it in your local software emporium any time soon.

To make it all work you’ll need RemoteFX-supporting server hardware, which could be delivered by a large VM farm or a set of blade servers.

Hardware options

Speaking of which, just look at the offer that’s landed in my inbox from a favourite hardware supplier, LA Micro – a used HP C7000 blade server, which is a full-height, rackmount monster with five power supplies, ten fans, an HP Infiniband switch and two management ports. Now stuff this box with 16 blade servers, each containing twin 2.4GHz AMD Opteron dual-core processors, 16GB of RAM, 73GB of SAS hard disk and two ports of Gigabit Ethernet.

If I’ve done my sums correctly that adds up to 64 processing cores, 256GB of total RAM and more than 1TB of disk space. Okay, it’s ex-lease kit, but it still has years of life ahead of it and with a price tag that’s just a pint short of six grand.

You’ll have to admit that this monster box would be capable of shovelling a whole large office-worth of VDI desktops out onto WinTPC clients.

If you’re wanting to move over to VDI – and there are lots of good reasons to think about doing that rather than continuing to invest lots of money in desktop PCs – then such a high-power blade server as this is worth hunting down, and the second-hand prices can be stunningly affordable.