ClearCube expands reach of PC blades

ClearCube Inc. this week unveiled its latest PC blade, which lifts current distance limitations for the devices by sending data over IP and supports multiple-user access to a single blade.

The company introduced I/Port, a small device that sits on a user's desktop and connects via standard network devices to a server room cabinet with racked blade PCs.

PC blades separate the intelligence of PCs from the desktop, placing the processing power in data centers and computer rooms. Employees using the devices have only a monitor, keyboard and mouse on their desks, along with a client appliance that is linked back to a blade server centrally located in a chassis.

The benefit of PC blades, proponents say, is that PC management is streamlined because all the hardware is consolidated in one place, making it easier to upgrade software and deal with problems. Spare blades, which are slimmed-down servers, also can be configured to provide hot backup so that if a system goes down, the user will not be affected.

Companies such as Avocent also sell PC blades, but the market has been slow to take off in large part because most of the devices have demanded a direct cable connection that is limited by distance. ClearCube's flagship product, C/Port, for instance, can send signals over Category 5 Ethernet up to 660 feet away. Avocent can send signals from its Cstation client device to a remote PC up to about 2,600 feet away.

HP has said that it is designing a thin-client-like blade PC that will address those distance limitations and, analysts say, likely give the PC blade market a boost. While HP has not detailed its plans, analysts say its product likely will be similar to I/Port and send signals across a network.

With I/Port, ClearCube eliminates the distance limitation by sending signals over standard Ethernet protocol, enabling data to be switched and transported along with regular network traffic.

"One of the problems that (ClearCube) had was the fact that there were a lot of installations that didn't have close proximity to a raised-floor environment, so they couldn't do the direct cable stuff. Their environments were set up to be switched," says Rob Enderle, principal analyst for Enderle Group. "To address the broad market ClearCube had to do this."

I/Port is similar to C/Port in that both are appliances that sit on a user's desktop and connect to a Wintel blade housed in a chassis. The difference is that while C/Port demanded a direct Cat 5 cable link, I/Port can connect to its blade over switches, hubs or other network equipment. In addition, while C/Port connects to a dedicated PC blade, up to four I/Ports can share a single server.

Enderle notes that sharing servers and running signals over IP could result in performance hits.

"What this is, is one IP device talking back to the blade and connecting to the blade virtually as opposed to physically. That's what allows it to be switched. The advantage is you can switch it. The trade-off is that now you're dependent on networking load," he says. "You have network load you have to take into account and you do get some degradation of overall performance."

Raj Shah, chief marketing officer for ClearCube, says the idea is to provide an option for users who don't need the high-performance processing power that existing customers such as Morgan Stanley and British Petroleum demand. By letting four I/Ports connect a single blade, the cost for the PC blades is reduced, he says.

The I/Port will be available in the fourth quarter. Pricing for a ClearCube deployment is based on volume, but an average-sized deployment of the I/Port and blade PCs would cost about US$900 per user if multiple users shared each blade, he says.

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