MaxSpeed takes new tack on thin-client networking

A thin-client, fat-server network ideally delivers PC ease of use and robustness as
well as administrative and cost benefits. Citrix Systems Inc.'s WinFrame is probably the
best-known software server for thin clients, but it's a bit much for a small office or
workgroup.


MaxSpeed Corp. is trying something different. Instead of connecting to a server through
a network, the MaxSpeed client connects to the server through a specialized VGA card.


The card has four graphic controller chips, each with a data port. Category 5 cable up
to 200 feet long runs from each port to a MaxSpeed terminal. The data transfer rate
between the server and each terminal is 32 megabits/sec.


A MaxSpeed Station is about two inches high and a little bigger than a notebook
computer. It has a port for the server cable, a VGA monitor port, two serial ports, a
parallel port and a keyboard port.


The server runs a special version of Microsoft Windows NT. But don't expect the easy NT
4.0 interface; this is NT 3.51. As with Citrix WinFrame, you're stuck with the older
operating system, although it can handle programs such as Microsoft Office 97 and other
32-bit applications.


The GCN Lab had to look hard to find a copy of NT 3.51 for our test drive. Microsoft
Corp. no longer stocks it, but MaxSpeed will still sell you a copy of either NT Server or
NT Workstation 3.51.


We hooked up four SuperVGA MaxSpeed Stations to a Dell Computer Corp. PowerEdge 2100
server through MaxSpeed's ISA card. The PowerEdge had a 200-MHz Pentium Pro processor,
128M RAM and 4G storage.


During the test drive, we ran the GCNdex32TM benchmark suite on the server
simultaneously with different numbers of clients. We also ran OpenGL graphics tests to see
how MaxSpeed stood up to heavy graphics use.


We found that a terminal could deliver 200-MHz Pentium Pro performance only when the
other stations were idle or consuming few resources. When all four terminals were in use
for word processing and other tasks, performance equaled that of typical Pentium PCs.


That was possible because the terminals tended not to access the same resources at the
same time. Of course, the faster the server processor, the faster each individual MaxSpeed
Station will operate.


The OpenGL tests showed that MaxSpeed's approach does not work well for heavy graphics
rendering. As soon as we started measuring OpenGL frame rates on one terminal, performance
of the other three fell sharply.


When two or more terminals ran OpenGL tests, the whole network grew quite sluggish. A
server with one of the new 333-MHz Pentium II chips would perform far zippier.


On GCNdex32 benchmarks, MaxSpeed did a bit better. Surprisingly, even with two clients
running the disk-access test simultaneously, performance was acceptable. The disk-access
scores were consistent across the board.


The GCNdex32 video benchmark, which primarily measures two-dimensional performance,
gave acceptable but more variable results. That's because the terminals' graphics
controllers mainly handled video requests, not the server processor, as in the OpenGL
tests.


Depending on the office environment, the MaxSpeed Stations would perform different
kinds and numbers of tasks. The accompanying benchmark scores will give you an idea of
baseline performance for the server alone, with multiple terminals running constant
operations and with a single active client.


The results for one active client are about the maximum performance you would expect
from MaxSpeed.


The terminals were easy to set up. It took about an hour. We did have to search for
serial-port mice, as the keyboard port was a PS/2 type, but there was no PS/2 mouse port.
The mouse occupied one of the two serial ports, and the other could connect any serial
device that had an NT 3.51 driver, such as a modem.


One nice feature was the ability to run a browser on each terminal to access different
World Wide Web sites. The setup would be ideal for offices needing low-cost Web access.


Just as with a networked PC, we could see the network from the terminals, save and
retrieve files from public areas, and do most everything else you would do using a
networked PC.


One deficit: The MaxSpeed lacked performance guides. In a server environment, you
ordinarily set policies for using server resources. One terminal might need higher
priority than others, for example. But MaxSpeed had no way to set priorities. Performance
monitoring tools also were weak.


The system we tested had four clients, which supported 1,024- by 786-pixel resolution
at 256 colors. MaxSpeed, however, offers systems for up to 104 users.


The MultiNode server software came from IGC Inc. of Elk Grove Village, Ill., and could
run under either NT Workstation or NT Server 3.51, depending on the number of users.


Though not for every office, MaxSpeed fills a workgroup niche nicely, letting users tap
into 32-bit PC apps without the price tag of a fully networked PC LAN.


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