Could PC blades sharpen your network's game?

Centralized system provides "middle way" for savings, efficiency gains

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Purveyors of PC blades would like you to think of their technology as similar to a Toyota Prius. Driving the gas/electric hybrid car may not completely banish the need to visit a gas station, but your mileage greatly improves, and your fuel costs go way down.

Similarly, PC blades don’t offer the same potential for efficiency gains and cost savings as server blades and other virtualized server systems. But as an easy-to-deploy intermediate solution, PC blades can let corporate IT departments rid themselves of hard-to-manage, insecure desktop PCs, saving significant money and labor.

PC blades are simply thin PCs placed on racks in server rooms. The user’s physical desktop has the usual monitor, keyboard and mouse, plus a small router-type device that connects back to the PC blade through a network. The user switches on that device to boot up and connect to the blade.

Managed centrally, PC blades are cheaper to maintain than regular desktop computers and are easier to set up for remote access by telecommuting workers. They also take less physical abuse and thus can last longer. And they can cut software licensing costs. All these factors are plusses for companies wary of the complexity of converting to a more traditional server-based architecture.

You can bank on it

Take eBank System Corp., an Internet bank in Japan. Worried about data leaks from its physically distributed PCs, eBank decided to adopt a PC blade system from ClearCube Technology Inc. in early 2005 after also evaluating Citrix Systems Inc.’s Presentation Server product. "We were looking for a solution that would be easy and quick to install," said an eBank spokesman by e-mail. "ClearCube was the only one solution, which was able to shift our existing PC applications as they were."

For 20 employees who routinely handle the bank’s confidential data, eBank has set up 24 PC blades, each with Intel CeleronD 2.66-GHz processors, 512MB RAM and 80GB hard drives, that run Windows XP and Microsoft Office 2000. The blades are operated in a special locked, limited-access room, and they do not contain floppy or CD drives to help prevent unauthorized copying.

EBank said the only problems it has had were minor connectivity glitches. Overall, the spokesman said, eBank sees ClearCube as a "very effective solution for treating highly confidential data at a financial firm."

Austin-based ClearCube was the first to enter the market back in 2000. It took several years, but Hewlett-Packard Co. and IBM have also joined the party. There is plenty of "co-opetition" in this space, since ClearCube offers a product with IBM.

So far, financial institutions have been quickest to adopt PC blades. Market traders in such organizations need fast workstations that can support multiple screens. In that situation, it makes economic sense to dedicate a whole PC blade to that user, according to Charles King, an analyst at Hayward, Calif.-based Pund-IT Inc.

PC or not PC?

PC blades aren’t the best choice for companies with fairly homogenous computing needs among their employees. For them, investing in servers that use virtualization to serve tens or hundreds of desktop users might be worth the investment.

The flexibility of virtualized systems is great for companies whose needs are "between ‘large’ and "extra-large," said King. PC blade servers, which to the naked eye are indistinguishable from PC blades, have been widely adopted for this purpose.

With so much apparent momentum behind server virtualization, PC blades might seem to already be outmoded technology. However, vendors are starting to offer desktop virtualization systems that allow each PC blade to act as a mini-server of its own and simultaneously serve a small number of users. That option can make sense for companies with IT staffers who are more used to handling client, not server, machines and that have many knowledge workers whose computing needs King would describe as "fairly modest."

A third option is to use virtualized servers and keep full PCs on users’ desktops. While that obviates the big advantages -- reduced IT costs and improved physical security -- of the other two methods, it can thwart a potential rebellion by employees over having their PCs taken away from them.

And some companies are less interested in IT costs and security and more interested in boosting worker productivity. Streaming applications from the virtualized server gives them more control over employee activities such as going to eBay or surfing other inappropriate Web sites at work, King said.

Finally, many companies have specialized users or small departments -- a graphic design team, for example -- that need full PCs in order to run esoteric applications that it would be cheaper and easier for them, not the IT department, to manage, King said. At the same time, more mainstream applications such as e-mail or office productivity software can be managed and streamed down to them.

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