Streamlining PC configurations

ClearCube Technology officials think they have solved a riddle that information technology managers have struggled with since the advent of the desktop computer: managing increasingly vast and complex networks of individual machines.

The company builds blade PCs, computers laid out on a thin circuit board and inserted into standard network racks. Similar in concept to blade servers, blade PCs allow users to have the same power and security of a computer sitting on their desks. The computers are easier to maintain, though, and are all caged in one location.

ClearCube, which names its brand of computers PC Blade, earlier this month debuted a new fiber-optic connecting cable that allows the computers to be even farther away from the users and enhances security.

Savings for agencies come in ease of management and support and in desk space that can be given over to other uses when no longer needed for computers, said Russell McFall, a computer specialist at the Headquarters Air Force Security Forces Center at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.

"We moved to blade computers because of the availability. We're able to get to [a user's] computer much faster in the [computer] room than going out to their computer," he said. "When you walk from your desk to the end user's desk, you have five people along the way saying, 'I've got a problem.' Here the user calls us up, and we're there immediately on their desktops."

Users store data on network drives, so if a computer goes bad, technicians can quickly move the user to another computer, with no loss of information, he said.

That's the basic equation that gives the blade PC its value proposition, said Ken Knotts, ClearCube's director of marketing. With a more conventional setup, a user whose computer fails may be in for a wait because the help desk is overloaded.

"If you call the help desk, it's going to take the help desk two hours to four hours, and if you're not mission-critical, it can take a day or two" to make the switch, he said.

The blade idea derived from a long line of efforts among IT managers to find alternatives to desktop computers, Knotts said. Although PCs give users more versatility, they give tech support more headaches. It has become harder to update software; users learn how to customize their machines but often don't learn how to protect their data.

"Traditional PCs are very powerful and provide the end user with lots of power. The problem is they're not very secure, and they're difficult to manage," he said.

The most common alternative, briefly popular in the 1990s, was a "thin client" arrangement, in which the user's machine had limited functionality and most of the serious number crunching took place on a server back in the IT room. It was a step up from the golden era of mainframes and dumb terminals, but not by much, Knotts said.

"Thin client is easy to manage, but it's based on a many-to-one ratio," he said. Users didn't like the loss of control or having to share computer resources with others.

ClearCube can fit 112 computers into a standard rack. Cables from the computers lead to ports on each user's desk called C/Ports, which connect the computer to a keyboard, a mouse, a monitor and any other needed device.

ClearCube also offers four software products that manage the blades generally and handle failover by switching users to other computers.

The company's standard copper cable connectors are secure, Knotts said, but the new fiber-optic cable extends the configuration's range from 200 meters to 500 meters.

ClearCube has clients in the State and Treasury departments, he said, along with the Homeland Security Department and some military organizations.

One new ClearCube reseller partner, Science Applications International Corp., has been talking to agencies and finding them interested in blades, said Richard Lang, manager of SAIC's Information Technology Division's Intelligence Solutions Group. "I've talked to quite a number of government customers who are all interested," he said. "I think a number of them that I'm talking to have been waiting for the fiber-optic capability. A lot of organizations are just laying fiber-optic cables down under their floors. Security managers are much more comfortable with fiber optics."

Agencies switching to blades should be prepared to deal with some difficulties that would not arise with conventional configurations, McFall cautioned.

Electricity proved to be one of the greater hurdles, he said. "You're moving everybody's computer into one room, so the amount of power it consumes is greater. We were moving into a new facility, so we were able to get the base and the contractor to come in and give us the power we need," he said. The Security Forces Center has about 60 users now, but McFall expects that number to grow.

Access to secure networks is another issue, he said. Most of the time, users need typical office automation, Internet access, Web publishing and similar capabilities, he said. Sometimes, though, they need secure access to the Defense Department's Secret Internet Protocol Router Network.

"Right now there [are] only one or two computers throughout our organization that have SPIRNET," he said. Users "would have to leave their desk, go to that station and log in. The hard drives for those systems are maintained in a safe, so they have to retrieve the hard drive and put it in."

Once McFall upgrades to the fiber connections, however, he can connect the new fiber-based C/Ports to SIPRNET for all users who need it, he said.

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PC Blades

ClearCube Technology's PC Blades, which come in two models, provide the standard PC components, including the latest Intel Corp. Pentium 4 processors, memory, hard drives and video cards.

n Model R1150 includes an Intel Pentium 4 processor with Hyper-Threading Technology, a 3.06 GHz nVidia Corp. Quadro 4 NVS or GeForce 2 MX graphics card, 2G of DDR SDRAM, an integrated 10/100 megabits/sec Ethernet port and a 120G hard drive.

n Model R1100 includes an Intel Pentium 4 processor, a 2.6 GHz nVidia Quadro 4 NVS or GeForce 2 MX graphics card, 4G of SDRAM, an integrated 10/100 megabits/sec Ethernet port and a 120G hard drive.

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