GCN Lab Review | Get those desktops off those desktops

ClearCube blade PC system makes managing PCs easier with little drop in performance

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Performance: A-

Features: B+

Ease of use: B+

Value: B+

Price: $1,299 to $2,079 per seat; varies based on architecture

Reviewer's comments: The system allows for total control over client systems and seamless performance for end users.

Contact: ClearCube Technology, Austin, Texas, (866) 652-3500, www.clearcube.com

The ClearCube C/Port,sits on a user's desktop and links to the blade system in the data center.

The ClearCube C/Port

Some of a network administrator's worst headaches come from trying to maintain users' computers. In a typical environment, if a system has a problem, a support person must to go to that PC's location (which could be in a distant building) to fix it. This can waste a lot of time for several people.

Various improvements to this type of architecture are gaining attention. One such solution is the PC blade system. This is where a user's PC is actually a blade system housed in a data center cage and connected to a desktop-based port device via the network.

The advantages of this type of system are numerous. It allows the administrator to standardize each system more easily. In addition, if a user has a problem, it can be resolved from an admin console and a backup system can be assigned to the affected user within seconds. No site visit required.

The GCN Lab recently tested the latest ClearCube Series R PC Blade system to see if it delivers on the technology's promise. In short, we were as impressed as some agencies have been with blade PCs [GCN.com, GCN.com/579].

Dual-core blades

A single ClearCube cage takes up 3U in a 19-inch rack and houses eight blades, which are hot-swappable. Each blade has a 3.4-GHz dual-core Pentium 4 processor and 1GB of RAM'plenty of power for any application. Its 80GB hard drive leaves plenty of room for applications the system administrator installs.

The blades are all docked to a backplane that is in turn connected to what ClearCube calls the BackPack. The R4300 BackPack, which is the version we had for testing in the lab, is broken down into three interchangeable modules. The Connect Bay module has the C/ports that connect each blade directly to a desktop unit, plus a USB port. It also has daisychain connections for admin and spares.

The Management Module has connections to set up a control chain between cages, as well as an Ethernet connection to allow you to use any terminal as a management console. Finally the Network Module has an Ethernet connection for each of the blades in the cage.

There are essentially three options for connecting desktop units to the blade system. The most popular method is through the ClearCube C/Port, a direct connection accomplished with standard CAT-5 cables with a functional range of 660 feet.

If a greater distance is required, you can use ClearCube's fiber transceiver, which is a 1U rack-mounted device. The transceiver converts the C/Port signals to fiber optics for an effective range of 1,650 feet.

If that distance is still not enough, or fiber proves too expensive, there's something called an I/Port. In this architecture, both the blade system and the I/Port desktop units are connected through a standard network switch.

This has the advantage of using existing cabling, but there is a significant loss in performance and you need up to twice as many open network ports as the other two options.
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In the lab, we tested the C/Port option. The standard C/Port desktop unit is incredibly small and light. At 7.5 inches wide by 5 inches deep by 1.25 inches high, it is significantly smaller than even the smallest desktop computer housings, and its 12-ounce weight is a tiny fraction of that of a desktop.

Since it has no moving parts, it needs no fan or ventilation. Setting it up involves connecting to the appropriate C/Port on the blade unit and plugging in the monitor, keyboard, mouse and power cord. In addition to these, it has two USB ports and sound jacks.

Setup is run from the admin console, which is a client connected to a dedicated blade through the admin daisy chain. It is very graphical and intuitive. Through it you can change which blade is connected to a client, get status and specifications of each blade in the system, all from the terminal in your office.

Performance issues?

But if setup and configuration were easy, it was performance that most worried us. Just a few years ago, computing over wires left something to be desired in terms of system responsiveness. We're glad to say that times have changed.

When we sat down at C/Port desktop client, we started with simple office tasks'document creation, etc. The system kept up with us without any perceptible lag.

Then we hooked up a CD drive through one of the USB ports and installed Adobe Photoshop, which even on a regular PC can tie up resources. The install took a bit longer than normal, but not to a frustrating degree. Then we started Photoshop and processed several large graphics files.

We noticed no appreciable lag in any operation. That's a big plus.

Reasonable costs

The price per seat is, surprisingly, not much more than a performance PC would cost. The C/Port (nonfiber) solution runs about $2,079 per seat, and the I/Port option with four clients per blade costs about $1,299 per seat.

The cost includes three years of hardware support and one year of software support.

Effective planning is key to getting the best ROI because per-seat costs would necessarily be higher if you had cages that were less than full.

But if you can wean users off thick clients, the ClearCube model is a good one. The system delivers seamless performance, reasonable costs, excellent scalability and the ability to integrate with a network's current architecture.

It's an attractive solution for the security conscious or any administrator who wants greater control over his infrastructure.

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