Considering an ordinary notebook may hold sensitive corporate data and intellectual property valued between $1 million and $8.8 million dollars -- as published in a 2007 McAfee and Datamonitor Data Loss Survey -- perhaps it’s best that your employees didn’t carry around a hard drive at all.

This is the premise behind “mobile thin clients,” which can best be described as a portable device, such as a notebook computer or smartphone, that doesn’t hold any data on it.

“The thin clients approach is a concept that takes processes normally performed locally on a device and shifts them to the network,” explains Nathan Dyer, senior analyst for enterprise mobility at the Boston, Mass.-based Yankee Group. “Processes like computing and data storage would then be controlled by the network.”

In other words, a “thin” client is just a shell, lacking local memory such as a hard drive. But when logged securely onto, say, a corporate server, the thin client can access company files and applications as if the data were stored on the device itself.

If the laptop were stolen or lost, the business’s data won’t be compromised because, well, there isn’t any on the device.

Advantages to thin clients

There are several benefits for using thin clients on mobile devices, says Dyer. The single most important advantage is increased security. “The risk of leaking sensitive data from mobile devices is mitigated when using thin clients,” he says.

Accessing files or running applications in a secure, controlled environment, like a corporate server, means your data will be better protected, says Klaus Besier, vice president and general manager of thin clients at HP. The computing giant has rolled out new thin-client alternatives. “Thin clients on desktops or laptops have been around for a long time but they’ve now become a hot commodity,” says Besier. Aside from many well-publicized examples of data breaches in the media, contributing factors to its growing popularity include pervasive Internet connections and more Web-based applications, including payroll software and word processors.

Another advantage is related to performance: “Mobile device resources are freed up, which means better battery life,” says Dyer. A typical laptop might only last, say, three to four hours with its spinning hard drive and cooling fan, but a mobile thin client could last well over six hours.

Besier says mobile thin clients could also mean “lower admin costs.” “If a laptop breaks down, it could be a while for your company to replace it for you. But mobile thin clients are easier to maintain,” he says. “There are no moving parts like a hard drive and fan.” They can often be replaced with another one since they’re virtually identical.

Because there are fewer components, another advantage is lower hardware costs. For example, HP’s 6760t mobile thin client costs $725, but a laptop with the same chassis and similar configuration, such as the nx7400 business notebook, runs close to $1,200.

Disadvantages of thinking thin

The obvious disadvantage is the requirement of ubiquitous network connectivity for mobile devices, says Dyer. In other words, if your Internet connection is down, or if the server is down, you’re out of luck.

“As the connectivity fails, so does the usefulness of the device,” Dyer says. As most road warriors have realized from finding dead spots in elevators and remote locations, there is no such thing as 99.999 percent reliability in the world of "anywhere,” Dyer adds.

Besier admits that the thin client isn’t for everyone. “If you’re a road warrior, you might want to be able to work offline,” he concedes. During long airplane flights, some road warriors actually like to be able to use their computer without an Internet connection. “It’s not for everyone or every scenario, so a small-to-mid-sized business might opt for a bit of a mix and match scenario,” he adds, “combining regular laptops with thin clients.”