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The ScreenCloud Guide to Thin Client-Powered Digital Signage

Have thin clients connected to screens around your office? Here’s how to centrally manage them and turn them into cloud-based digital signage with ScreenCloud.

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Digital signage keeps you from needing to tell company announcements to your team, person-by-person. But managing all that hardware can be a pain. Plenty of walking around, rebooting machines, setting up screens, and coming back to your server to tie it all together. Rolling out more screens means budgeting for both the time and hardware.

Managing hardware isn’t the best way to spend your time. Buying new screens and streaming devices isn’t the best use of your money, either.

There’s another way, for companies that already have thin client devices: Using thin clients on each screen paired with virtual machines that run all of your signage from a single server. You can manage each screen remotely—no need to check the underlying hardware. Since the bulk of the processing happens on the server, you can reuse existing (or buy cheaper) thin client hardware to power each screen. And with ScreenCloud’s digital signage software, every screen will have the same great signage features.

Setting up your server

Starting out, you’ll need a server with enough resources to host all the virtual machines. The minimum requirements to run ScreenCloud on Windows are 2 CPU cores, 2GB of RAM and 64GB of disk space per virtual machine—multiply that by each digital signage screen in your company. There are 3 options you can consider.

The first one is to use an in-house server—which could be a traditional rack server, or just a desktop PC with enough RAM to run everything from one machine. This is an economical option, best if you have an in-house server or PC with resources to spare. You’ll have lower latency with everything on-premises.

The second option is to use a hosting service such as Digital Ocean, with one virtual private server running multiple virtual machines—similar to an in-house server, except in the cloud. You can scale server resources as you add more signage. It’s cheaper than buying a server, but more expensive than repurposing an existing one.

Or, you could go with a virtual desktop provider such as Amazon Workspaces or Azure Virtual Desktop. Here, Windows comes preinstalled, licensed, and typically is fully managed, saving you the time and complexity of setting up and maintaining everything. This is usually the more expensive option, though.

Either option works as a server for your signage. In this guide, we’ll assume your server is up and running, that your thin clients are ready for a remote desktop connection, and that all the machines are connected to the internet.

Here’s an overview of the entire process to run digital signage with thin clients:

  1. Set up virtual machines on your server, one per thin client
  2. Connect each thin client to their corresponding virtual machine with Google Remote Desktop
  3. Add each screen to ScreenCloud and install the ScreenCloud player app
  4. Create a ScreenCloud screen group to manage screens together

Set up your virtualized signage computers

First, let’s set up a virtual machine, then duplicate it to have a unique virtual machine for each of our thin clients.

Install VirtualBox and set up your first virtual machine

Install Windows in VirtualBox

You’ll need to download a Windows 11 Installation ISO to set up each of your virtual machines. You’ll also need virtualization software, something like VMware, Microsoft Hyper-V, or VirtualBox to run virtual machines on your computer. VirtualBox is a free, open source virtualization tool, so we’ll use it in this tutorial.

Download VirtualBox, install and open it. Click New—then add a name for the virtual machine, select the Windows installation ISO file you just downloaded, and choose the edition you’d like to install.

Automatically install Windows in VirtualBox

Next, set up the account username and password, add your Windows product key, and check the Guest Additions to improve your VirtualBox performance (this step might vary based on your virtualization software).

Allocate resources to a VirtualBox virtual machine

Time to allocate resources to this virtual machine. Choose the amount of RAM, CPU cores and disk space that the machine will use. ScreenCloud needs at least 2GB of RAM and 2 CPU cores—for this guide, we went with 4GB of RAM, 2 CPU cores and a 64GB disk and the setup ran smoothly (as Windows setup runs far faster with more RAM).

Click Finish and the virtual machine will power itself on and install Windows automatically. Click the Show button to watch the setup process—or let it run in the background while you’re working on other tasks. VirtualBox will still be installing Windows at this point, so wait until the virtual system boots and is ready to use.

Download ScreenCloud Player on your first virtual machine

Once Windows is installed on your virtual machine, let’s save some time and download the ScreenCloud Player right away. This way, when we clone this virtual machine, you will already have the installer ready. To do that, open a web browser inside the virtual machine instance and download but don’t run the ScreenCloud Player installer.

Note: Installing the player before duplicating the instance would prevent you from managing each thin client screen individually from your ScreenCloud account dashboard.

Clone the virtual machine

Clone virtual machine in VirtualBox

The first virtual machine is ready with Windows and the ScreenCloud Player download. You can now clone this machine as many times as necessary, to make a virtual machine for each thin client and screen you want to connect.

Make sure the original virtual machine is not running and, on the manager window, right-click on it, and then click Clone.

Manage multiple virtual machines in VirtualBox

Choose a name for the clone and set the Clone type to Full clone. Once you click Finish, the new virtual machine will appear in the manager window. Highlight it and click Start to see if it was correctly cloned. Repeat this process for every thin client you’re planning to connect.

Connect the thin clients to the server’s virtual machines

Now that you have all the virtual machines ready, it’s time to connect your thin clients. We’ll be using Google Remote Desktop to access our virtual machines from the thin clients, as it’s free and easy to set up; other options include Teamviewer for extended compatibility or RemotePC for an inexpensive alternative.

On the virtual machine

First you’ll need to install Google Remote Desktop on your virtual machine. Open your virtual machine, visit the Google Remote Desktop website, click Share my screen, and log into your Google account.  Then follow the steps to install the Chrome extension and the Remote Desktop application.

Set up Google Remote Desktop remote access

When everything’s ready, click the Remote Access tab and select Turn On. This will let you connect to this virtual machine remotely from your thin client. Type in a name and a PIN for this machine and finish the process.

Repeat this process on every virtual machine, noting the computer names and PINs for each machine.

On the thin clients

You now have to set up the remote connections on each of your thin clients. Go to Google Remote Desktop on each thin client and click Access my computer. After you log in with your Google account, you’ll see the list of virtual machines.

Connect to remote desktop with Google Remote Desktop

To connect the thin client to the virtual machine, simply click on the computer name and enter the PIN and you’ll see the remote desktop right away. If you need to change any settings, click on the docked arrow on the right side of the screen. Before moving on to the next thin client, be sure to toggle full screen by either pressing F11 or using the browser menu.

Accessing Windows from a virtual machine in a thin client

Then, repeat this process until all thin clients are connected to their respective virtual machines.

Install the ScreenCloud Player

All virtual machines are connected to all thin clients, so you can now manage everything from your server. Let’s install the ScreenCloud Player on all thin clients—something you could do now either from your server, from each thin client, or from another computer with remote access.

On each virtual machine, open the Downloads folder, run the ScreenCloud installer, and take note of the pairing codes that appear on the screen.

Set up ScreenCloud digital signage on Windows

Don’t worry about the Google Remote Desktop notification on the screen. As long as the ScreenCloud Player is focused and is full screen, this notification should disappear a few seconds after you stop interacting with the virtual machine.

Pair each thin client screen with your ScreenCloud account

Now it’s finally time to turn your thin client screens into digital signage. When you pair your thin client screens with ScreenCloud, you can manage and change the content they’re displaying from the ScreenCloud dashboard, without having to open the window of each virtual machine individually on your server (and even better, without having to go to the thin client’s physical location).

ScreenCloud screen group

Log into your ScreenCloud dashboard from any computer—your personal laptop or your server. On the top right of the window, click on New Screen and add all the pairing codes, one by one. As you do so, you’ll see all your screens stacked on a list.

Display content on your thin client screens

You can now add any content you want to your digital signage, right from ScreenCloud. Build out playlists or channels, if you haven’t already, with the apps and content that you want to show to your team.

Once those are ready to broadcast, you can create a screen group to quickly push it to all your newly connected screens. On the Screens tab of the ScreenCloud dashboard, click on the New Screen Group button. 

ScreenCloud screen groups

Add a name for this screen group and then drag and drop all the screens into it. When you have all your thin clients in the group, click on the triple dot icon to the right of the screen group name and click on Set Content. 

Set content on ScreenCloud screens

A popup will appear to let you select what kind of content you’d like to show. As soon as you click Confirm, the Now Playing card will update with your selection.

ScreenCloud showing what your screens are now playing

Extra settings to consider for thin-client digital signage

Network security

When configuring new machines on premises, you need to ensure they’re secure so they don’t become an entry point for attackers. Since they must be connected to the internet to communicate with Google Remote Desktop and ScreenCloud, make sure that each machine is secured with the appropriate software, is regularly updated, and that its firewall rules are tight.

Google account security

Since the remote desktop connections are centralized in your Google account, anyone with access to that account will have access to your virtual machines. Don’t forget to set up all the available account security features in your Google account to keep your machines safe—including two-factor authentication if possible.

Remote wake-up and shutdown

While you can easily shut down your thin clients remotely by interacting with the machine via Google Remote Desktop, waking them up requires extra configuration. 

To set up wake-on-LAN on your thin clients, you’ll have to boot into the BIOS in each of them and turn on the feature. Then, in Windows, use the Device Manager to change the properties of the network card to listen for wake-on-LAN magic packets (a system-level message sent between computers on a network for this purpose).

You can then use an application like Depicus to send the magic packet. As each thin client receives the packet, they’ll start powering on. Some routers may also offer wake-on-LAN features, so chat with your IT team or browse your hardware’s manual to see if this is possible.

Set up automatic updates

You can set your virtual machines to update outside business hours (or at a convenient time if you run a 24-hour operation). Set up the best time interval in Windows Update for operating system updates. For all other applications, you can use an app like Patch My PC Updater: it’ll scan your installed apps at startup, identify which are out of date, and you can then set how and when they’ll be updated.

Save computing power

If you choose to allocate additional RAM or CPU cores to your virtual machines and notice that your screens are running well, you can test reducing the resources on one virtual machine and see how the performance is affected.

If everything is still running smoothly, you can downgrade all your virtual machines to save server resources. On an in-house server, this means less computing power. On a cloud server, this could help you save on hosting costs.

Automate Windows

Depending on your needs, you may want Windows to automatically run a sequence of actions after every system restart. To automate Windows, you can write a PowerShell script and set it to run with Windows Task Scheduler.

Automate your signage

Now that you have your digital signage running, you can leverage ScreenCloud’s integrations to bring data from anywhere straight into your screens.

There’s a wide range of ScreenCloud Apps that’ll let you display a world clock, up-to-date traffic information and the top news of the day. More than that, you can show data from your productivity apps, keeping targets and metrics visible as you work with the latest Google Reviews of your business, important messages from your Slack channels, or even custom Microsoft PowerBI and other data-driven dashboards.

If you’re a developer—are really good at prompting ChatGPT for code—ScreenCloud lets you build your own customized dashboards with custom HTML, CSS and JavaScript. You can push data to your signs with webhooks, automate your signage with GraphQL API queries (and even control your signage by talking to Siri).

You can then continue the rollout, adding more screens to share info across your company. You could add more thin client signs, use smart TVs and other off-the-shelf hardware for new signage, or even build complete video walls powered by ScreenCloud if you want.

New to digital signage? Sign up for a free 14-day ScreenCloud trial and start turning your company’s spare screens into signage.

Image Credit: Server photo by Taylor Vick via Unsplash

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