Repackaging the PC

To many government information technology managers, PCs require laborious upkeep and open myriad potential security holes on every desktop. Officials at an increasing number of agencies are discovering a new way to deliver PC functionality to workers that tackles both problems and has the potential to cut costs.

Using a configuration called blade PCs, the solution takes the guts of the personal computer — the microprocessor, memory chips and hard disk — and mounts them on a thin board called a blade, then places these blades on an equipment rack in the server room or other secure location. Meanwhile, all that remains on the worker's desk is a monitor, keyboard and mouse, plugged into a tiny box that connects to the blade via a standard copper or fiber-network cable.

Until now, blade PCs have made only a tiny dent in PC sales, but the technology might be poised for a breakout once industry heavyweight Hewlett-Packard Co. debuts a new line of them. Though industry experts don't think new blade PCs are going to spark a massive user conversion from traditional PCs, they anticipate the platform will make inroads in cost- and security-conscious organizations, such as those in the government.

One benefit of a blade PC solution is that users get fully operational PCs that run standard operating systems. "The blade is logically exactly the same as a desktop PC," said Roger Kay, director of client computing at market research firm IDC. "It has all the same parts. It's just that they are separated from each other in a way they are not typically in a desktop PC."

The distributed setup is the primary reason blade PCs are considered by some to be more secure than traditional ones. Because the hard drive is located in a secure room apart from users, their ability to access and copy data to removable media is limited.

"Part of what we offer is a way to secure desktop resources away from the user," said Jim Zakzeski, vice president of marketing and sales at Cubix Corp., a blade PC manufacturer. "So you actually have all of the PC technology locked up in the data center. [Users] don't have any access to floppies or CDs."

This security level can obviously be attractive to federal customers. Indeed, blade PC dealers have been doing well in the government market. Officials at blade PC maker ClearCube Technology, one of the original players in the market, said they have a substantial number of units deployed within the Homeland Security and State departments. Cubix officials said they have installations at the Air Force, Federal Emergency Management Agency and elsewhere.

For many of these customers, secu-rity concerns have been an important driver.

"Seventy-five percent of the federal implementations we have done at GTSI [Corp.] with ClearCube solutions have been in secure environments," said Lewis Bean, a business development executive at computer reseller GTSI.

Centralized Management

Another benefit of blade PC technology is the ability to manage desktops remotely using centralized management software.

"Management of the [blade] cluster is much simpler than having a technician touch each desktop every time a software upgrade or application build is released," said Rose Parkes, FEMA's acting chief information officer.

Hardware problems are easier to solve when the brains of the computer are in a central location. For example, the North American Aerospace Defense (NORAD) Command uses a blade PC setup, among other tools, to reduce administrative chores, said Garland Garcia, chief of data networks at the command.

NORAD placed eight blades in each rack cage, but only seven are active; one acts as a spare. If one of the blades fails, support staff can use remote-control software to transfer the data to the spare blade with little inconvenience to the IT department or end users.

Blade PCs cost more than traditional PCs. However, studies have shown that by centralizing management, significant savings can be achieved.

For example, last year, Hill Air Force Base in Utah tested the cost-efficacy of ClearCube blade PCs. According to the pilot study, the base saved significant time deploying new PCs and software configurations and swapping out failed machines. The net benefits included far less end-user downtime and less time spent by IT staff servicing the machines.

ClearCube continues to offer a reliable total cost of ownership for Hill's PC needs. "In measuring the [total cost of ownership], maintenance and downtime, costs are considerably lower with ClearCube," said 1st Lt. Cara Cleveland, a flight commander at Medical Information Systems.

Because ClearCube is not part of Hill's standard PC refresh budget, the systems need to be purchased locally, which creates higher costs for the base, Cleveland said.

Blade PC makers concede that their systems cost more than traditional PCs, but argue that they make up for it in lower total cost of ownership. "You can buy a Dell [Computer Corp. PC] for about $800, but you end up paying $3,000 to $4,000 a year in support," said Raj Shah, chief marketing officer at ClearCube.

Getting exact maintenance costs for traditional PCs is not easy because situations vary so greatly. However, Rob Enderlee of the research firm Enderlee Group said that $4,000 per PC for annual maintenance costs is probably the high end. Nevertheless, a site that was poorly managed might cut more than half that expense by moving to a centralized management tool like the kind many blade implementations use.

Blades Vs. Thin Clients

The blade PC approach is not the only solution to the PC-management conundrum. Another is to use so-called thin clients, also known as the server-based computing model. With this approach, users get a stripped-down PC on their desktops, usually one that lacks portable disk drives, and they rely on a beefy server in the computer room to handle the real application management and data processing chores.

Blade PCs share many similarities with thin clients, such as remote storage, increased security and centralized management, but there are differences.

"What we are is a standard PC — each user has his own dedicated Intel [Corp.] processor, hard disk and memory," Shah said. "What a thin client does is take a big, fat server and shares the applications and the operating system with multiple users, so at the end user's desk, you'll have a small processor device they call a thin client that talks back and forth with a fat server."

Because thin-client users share server resources over the network with other users, they may encounter scaling issues that don't come into play with PC blades, Bean said.

"The rule of thumb I use is typically 40 to 50 [thin-client] users on a single server is the limit," he said. "Whereas with [PC blades] you don't have that issue because each person is actually connected to his own computer."

Thin clients may also have trouble running the custom software that is so prevalent in federal settings. "Where the problems happen with thin clients are if you have any types of custom software that you develop in-house...you have to port all of that software to a thin client and it's a huge technical exercise to do that," Shah said.

Blade PCs remain highly specialized, but they are gaining popularity. Despite their higher initial cost, they provide simpler maintenance, centralized management and improved security over traditional PCs, all features that government IT shops may find attractive.

Miller is a freelance writer based in Amherst, Mass. He can be reached at rsmiller@techdochelp.com.

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Comparing blade PCs and thin clients

Blade PCs work by taking the guts of a fully functioning PC and relocating them from the user's desk to a secure, centralized location, leaving only a keyboard, monitor and mouse at the user's workstation. Thin clients leave a stripped-down PC on the user's desktop and connect that to a shared server in the computer room that handles the processing work.

Blade PCsThin clients
Remote data storage for increased securityyesyes
Centralized maintenanceyesyes
Increased desktop spaceyesno
Ability to run custom software without modificationyesno
Full PC functionalityyesno
Shared network connectionnoyes
Low upfront cost per clientnoyes
Source: Federal Computer Week

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