Splitting the PC

Two approaches to help you ease your desktop management woes

Forget "War of the Worlds." The threat of losing sensitive data to theft may strike more fear in the hearts of government information technology managers than an alien invasion.

Unfortunately, desktop PCs are highly susceptible to outside and inside theft. Criminals can steal entire machines, and employees can easily download data and copy it to portable USB flash drives and CDs.

Managing networks with hundreds of users can also be a nightmare. Administrators often have to perform upgrades one PC at a time, and moving users or groups can involve physically lugging computers and monitors around the office.

To address those issues, especially security, many government agencies are turning to PC systems that use a technology called PCI bus extension. The PCI bus is the data highway that transfers data to and from the CPU and various devices attached to the computer, such as video cards and external devices.

By extending this bus, users can work away from the PC, which IT managers can mount and lock in a data center. A small satellite box on the desk connects to the data center via fiber-optic or copper cables and provides ports for all peripheral devices, including monitors, keyboards, mice and USB devices.

The technology can run on any operating system, so a user's experience is not different from working on a standard PC. If administrators don't want users to have access to USB ports for security reasons, they can buy versions of the desktop box that don't have the ports or allow them to disable the ports.

In addition to improving security by blocking access to the PC, split PCI bus technology eases management woes by putting the PCs in one place. When users change offices, administrators only need to reconfigure the connections in the data center instead of physically moving computers.

Similarly, when a computer fails, it takes only seconds to switch a user to a spare, compared with the time it would take to locate and set up a new PC in the user's office.

Administration software allows easy management from one console. Some systems come with proprietary management software, while others ship with popular packages such as Intel's LANDesk.

In addition to security and administration advantages, those systems also free a lot of desktop space or, in the case of towers, floor space.

Finally, although the initial cost of such systems is higher than that of traditional PCs, PCI bus extension technology saves money over time because of centralized management and minimal user downtime.

1 technology, 2 approaches

We looked at two PCI bus extension products that take different approaches to building solutions. Cubix's LaserStation P/C is a complete solution that includes a rackmountable PC. The company calls the system a split PC.

Avocent's DDL2150, on the other hand, comes with a PCI card you can add to a blade PC or a computer of your choice. For this review, the company sent us an Appro International HyperBlade computer.

Blade systems reduce the PC to a thin circuit board mounted either on a four-post rack or in a cabinet in the data center. Some blade PCs are simply boards mounted in cages, which in turn are mounted on a rack. Appro HyperBlades, however, are housed in thin cases — a little more than 1.5 inches high — which administrators mount in a cabinet.

Cubix makes blade PCs called BladeStation for its PCI bus extension products and offers a package called the LaserKit that can integrate with third-party PCs. We looked at the LaserStation because it's new and we wanted to see how a split PC differs from a blade PC. Avocent's DDL2150 is also new.

Because the LaserStation only works with a fiber-optic connection, we ordered the Avocent product with fiber optics, too, although the company offers a copper cabling option.

Interestingly, if Cubix customers want to use copper cabling with the BladeStation, the company integrates Avocent desktop boxes into its system.

Fiber is more expensive than copper, but it offers several advantages. Signal loss is minimal during fiber-optic transmissions, so fiber can transmit data over longer distances than copper. Because fiber-optic cable is made of glass, no electric current flows through it. Therefore, it is immune to wiretaps and electromagnetic interference snooping. Fiber is also smaller in diameter and lighter than copper.

Cubix LaserStation

Cubix's LaserStation offers one-stop shopping, providing both the rackmountable PC and the satellite box for the user's desk. The advantage is that you won't have to shop around, and you'll have one point of contact for your entire solution. But you also have less flexibility with your PC options. For example, you can't use your existing PCs.

An organization might choose the LaserStation over a blade system for several reasons. Blades are designed for large installations and are not cost-effective for small ones. The LaserStation, on the other hand, is cost-effective even if a company installs only a few PCs.

What's more, the 16.7-inch-deep LaserStation requires only a two-post rack and takes up less space than blades, which are deeper and require four-post racks or cabinets. The Appro blade we reviewed was about 28 inches deep.

Blades, however, offer redundant power and more robust management.

The desktop box and the LaserStation feature chassis made of thick, shiny metal. We received the smallest, most basic desktop box Cubix offers, the LS2 Series, but it still looked bulky and industrial, especially when compared with the Avocent box's black color and streamlined, finished styling.

Although the desktop boxes from both vendors were comparable in size, they offered different levels of expansion. The Cubix LS2 measures 9 inches wide by 5.75 inches deep by 2.25 inches high and does not have any accessible PCI expansion slots.

Avocent's DDL2150 desktop box measures 8.3 inches by 6.2 inches by 2.1 inches and features one available half-length PCI expansion slot. Cubix's comparable model is the LS3, which is an inch taller than both the LS2 and the Avocent DDL2150.

Avocent also offers a desktop box with no expansion slots, and at 1.2 inches high, it's about half the height of the Cubix LS2.

The Cubix line is larger in size and offers more expansion. The company makes desktop boxes with five available half- or full-length PCI slots, while Avocent's largest desktop box offers two full-length PCI slots.

Users can connect devices such as voice-over-IP phones, video encoders and video surveillance in the expansion slots.

Both companies' boxes can be mounted underneath or on the side of a desk, but Avocent goes one step further with an option to mount the box directly onto the back of most flat-panel monitors.

The ports on our Cubix desktop box included three USB 2.0, two PS/2, VGA, S-Video, TV-out, audio in, audio out and microphone. Our box supported one monitor, but Cubix also offers models that support two, four or eight.

Administrators can't disable the USB ports, but Cubix offers versions of the box without them.

The maximum distance a desktop box can be located from the LaserStation is 825 feet, which is considerably less than Avocent's maximum distance of 2,640 feet.

Our LaserStation came with a 2.8 GHz Pentium 4 processor, 1G of memory and a 120G Serial Advanced Technology Attachment (ATA) hard drive, but higher configurations are available.

Our system was preloaded with Microsoft Windows XP, and it could also support all current Windows and Linux/Unix operating systems.

Our experience was the same as with a standard desktop PC. The system responded just as quickly, and video clips boasted excellent sound and graphics quality.

The LaserStation comes bundled with Intel's excellent LANDesk management software, while the BladeStation ships with Cubix's proprietary CubixVision management software. Both platforms can use third-party software, such as management suites from Altiris.

The LaserStation uses an external physical layer fiber switch that acts as an intelligent path panel to connect desktop boxes to a spare computer if the primary one fails. The Layer 1 switch allows an administrator to connect to and manage the PCs via a centralized management module even if the network is down. Avocent, meanwhile, supports Layers 1 and 2 switching. Layer 2 is the network layer and offers a host of management options beyond the capabilities of a Layer 1 switch.

The LaserStation system, which consists of one LS2 desktop box and one rackmountable PC, costs $1,695 for the configuration we reviewed.

Avocent DDL2150

Avocent's solution takes a different approach, allowing customers to choose their own PCs. The DDL2150 consists of a desktop box and a PCI add-in card instead of an entire PC. You can add the card to any desktop computer or blade PC with a PCI slot.

This open architecture gives customers the flexibility to choose a PC that suits their needs or to capitalize on existing PCs, possibly migrating to blade PCs over time.

Avocent's black desktop boxes look sleek and unobtrusive. In addition to desk mounting, Avocent's boxes can be mounted directly on the rear of flat-panel displays that comply with Video Electronics Standards Association standards as long as the displays use separate desk stands. Some Avocent boxes allow customers to also use mounting arm configurations.

Like the Cubix LS2 desktop box, our Avocent box featured two PS/2 ports and audio in, audio out and microphone jacks. But instead of one VGA port, it came with two Digital Visual Interface-Integrated (DVI-I) ports and two adapters so that one or both ports can be used with standard analog VGA monitors. Cubix also offers models with DVI-I ports that support analog and digital signals.

Like Cubix, Avocent offers desktop box models that can support as many as eight monitors.

Avocent's box also featured four USB 2.0 ports, compared with Cubix's three, and although it came with a serial port — which our Cubix box did not have — it did not feature S-Video or TV-out ports — which Cubix's box had.

For security, the USB ports can be disabled, either with hardware jumpers on the PCI add-in card or through Avocent's DWorks management software, which comes bundled with the system.

Our HyperBlade came configured with a 3.0 GHz Intel Pentium 4 processor, 512M of memory and an 80G Serial ATA hard drive. Our review system was loaded with Windows XP, but it can also run Windows 95 through 2000, Me and most Linux distributions.

Because Avocent's product supports higher layers switching, the HyperBlade can use a Gigabit Ethernet switch for centralized, extended management with DWorks.

Layer 2 switching allows administrators to do a host of things. For example, they can use DWorks to scan the network to locate desktop boxes and view their properties, whether they are powered on or off, whether they are connected to another device or available as a spare, and more. Administrators can also upgrade properties individually or across multiple devices at once.

And if Avocent's keyboard-, video- and mouse-over-IP switch is used, administrators can pair and separate desktop boxes and PCI add-in cards remotely via any Internet connection worldwide. That would not be possible without Layer 2 switching.

The DDL2150 desktop box costs $1,645, and the PCI fiber add-in card costs $350, bringing the total for the Avocent portion of the system to $1,995. The HyperBlade as configured for our review costs $1,267, producing a grand total of $3,262.

Bottom line

Split PCI bus architecture is a great way to secure equipment and sensitive data by locking it in a data center that only administrators can access. It also frees desktop space, lowers the total cost of ownership and offers efficient, robust management.

When deciding what type of PCI bus extension product to buy, consider your existing infrastructure and balance your agency's needs with your budget. If you're a small installation starting from scratch, Cubix's LaserStation might be for you. But if you want to use existing PCs or blades, you'll want an open architecture system like Avocent's. You should also research a product's management capabilities to make sure they'll be sufficient for your installation.


**********

LaserStation P/C

Cubix
(775) 888-1000
www.cubix.com

Management: ***

Extension distance: ***

Appearance: **

Price: ***

Price: The Cubix LaserStation P/C system, which consists of a desktop box and a rackmountable PC, costs $1,695 for the configuration we reviewed.

Pros: The LaserStation P/C is cost-effective for small installations, giving users one-stop shopping for the entire system.

Cons: Management features are not as robust as they could be, and the desktop boxes are bulky.


**********

DDL2150 PCI Bus Extension

Avocent
(256) 430-4000
www.avocent.com

Management: ****

Extension distance: ****

Appearance: ****

Price: **

Price: The DDL2150 desktop box costs $1,645, and the PCI add-in card costs $350, bringing the total for the Avocent portion of the system to $1,995. As configured for our review, the Appro International HyperBlade PC costs $1,267, bringing the grand total to $3,262.

Pros: The DDL2150 has an open, flexible architecture. The product provides a long maximum distance between the desktop box and the PC in the data center.

Cons: The DDL2150 is expensive.

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