PC blades gain acceptance

ClearCube's blade PCs fit neatly into a server-style rack for easy, centralized management.

Military users cite cost and space savings as well as security as major motivators

From the wilds of Afghanistan to the depths of Cheyenne Mountain'and at numerous civilian agencies in between'a novel approach to desktop computing is solving some of government customers' thorniest problems.

PC blades'server-style blades that reside in a data center and hold the same basic components as traditional desktop computers'are gaining a foothold as a cost-effective way to conserve space and comply with security requirements in environments that require multiple operating systems. The computing model gained a measure of legitimacy last year when Hewlett-Packard Co. began selling its own line of blade PCs.

'I can see where space or power constraints are big drivers for early adoption of these technologies,' said David Friedlander, senior analyst for desktop and mobile management and security at Forrester Research Inc. of Cambridge, Mass. 'The box on the desk draws around 20 or 25 watts. The monitor will draw more energy, but the box will draw very little power compared to a computer, so there's definitely an opportunity for blades to help in those environments.'

At Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., blade PCs from ClearCube Technology Inc. of Austin, Texas, support 14 people developing and testing software builds and hardware updates to the Air Force's F-15 fighter jets.

Biggest kick

ClearCube has provided its PC blades to more than 50 government installations, including numerous military bases, the departments of Energy, Justice, Homeland Security and State , and agencies in the intelligence community. The systems run on Intel processors and support Linux or Microsoft Windows.

'The biggest kick for me is when I have someone visiting the server room, I pull out a blade and say, 'Here's the PC,' ' said Roger Chilcott, senior engineer at Eglin.

Chilcott's users need to switch among five different networks, each with its own operating system and clearance requirements.

'Because we have to have so many PCs'it's such a dense environment'we don't have to go out and enlarge office areas to support more people,' he said. 'We're using the technology to give everyone the space to do their work.'

Those space limitations apply in spades at Cheyenne Mountain, the home of the North American Aerospace Defense Command and the U.S. Space Command, outside Colorado Springs, Colo.

'We're inside a mountain,' said Garland Garcia of the Cheyenne Mountain communications team. 'We have three different networks, and each user has from one to three computers under their desk.'

At the moment, Garcia is using somewhere between 300 and 400 blade PCs to support his users. Those numbers are going to grow significantly; the plan is for the base to shift all of its 2,400 users to PC blades over the the next four years.

Using blade PCs will let the installation consolidate its power, heating and air conditioning requirements for computers in a much smaller space, freeing up room for other uses, Garcia said.

Forrester's Friedlander said PC blades can be a cost-effective solution for facilities, but 'there is sort of a minimum threshold with blades.' The site should either use most or all of the slots in the blade enclosure, or have specific plans to add PC blades incrementally to the enclosure, he explained.

Indeed, savings from blade PCs normally come from low management costs. The blade PCs themselves usually cost more than a traditional desktop system.

Glen Kilgore, the IT lead for the Coast Guard Headquarters Support Command in Washington, D.C., made the switch to blade PCs sold by Cubix Corp. of Carson City, Nev. DHS has also deployed Cubix blade PCs.

'Originally, we had a gigantic rack of computers in the office,' Kilgore said. 'We needed more computers as we added users and we ran out of space'and space is at a premium in government buildings.'

Rack 'em up

Kilgore chose a rack design that could accommodate 30 blade PCs. Smaller racks are also available. At the Coast Guard site, the blade PCs are set up one-to-one, that is, one blade for one user. But with today's PC virtualization technologies or special blade-sharing add-ons, a single blade PC could provide desktop resources to multiple users.

As significant as the desktop space savings are, users say security is also a major benefit.

'At each user's desk we have one keyboard, one monitor, one mouse,' said Chilcott. 'No floppy disks, no CDs, no mass storage devices. It reduces the risk of someone taking data off the system.'

Kilgore added, 'The computers had classified information; now they're all locked up behind one door.'

At Eglin, the blades sit in a cage behind the administrator's desk; at Cheyenne Mountain, they're in a locked closet.

'I can take care of 76 computers in one room. I don't have to go through the users' desks,' Chilcott said.

PC blades do have some technical limitations, said Friedlander, such as the distance from users' desks to the blade enclosure, and their ability to handle multimedia applications.

'I think as government agencies go through PC refresh cycles, there will be an opportunity' to expand the use of PC blades, Friedlander said. 'There will be some reluctance to adopt what is perceived as a new technology, though it's not exactly new'the blade concept has been around a while.'

Well-suited to combat

So far, acceptance of blade PCs has been most notable in the military.

'Seventy percent of inappropriate conduct is [from] the insider threat, not the outsider,' said retired Lt. Gen. Kenneth Minihan, former director of the National Security Agency and now a board member of ClearCube. There are 'people who work for us who have intentions that are inconsistent with the mission of the organization.'

Minihan said blade PCs are well-suited to combat environments and provide the information dominance that will prove vital to future warfighting. Using the blades facilitates computing on the front lines, while providing 'reachback' to more powerful computing capabilities.

'The strategic coin of the 21st century is the knowledge base, where in the 20th century I would have said the industrial base,' Minihan said. 'Our people have the intellectual property, [and] the place where we put all of that at risk is at the desktop.'

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