Could PC blades sharpen your network's game?

Cheaper and easier to maintain

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.

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 in early 2005 after also evaluating Citrix Systems' 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."

ClearCube was the first to enter the market back in 2000. It took several years, but Hewlett-Packard 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 Pund-IT Inc.

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.

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