ClearCube Technology’s C3 rack system

InfoWorld (US)

No single piece of technology is more important to the e-business economy than the lowly personal computer. We’ve burned through countless new business paradigms through the years, but the humble PC has always played a crucial role. Yet PC makers have done little to advance these omnipresent machines since their inception 20 years ago.

Until now, that is. Thanks largely to Steve Jobs and his company’s iMac, desktop machines are finally breaking out of the “beige box” model. Now manufacturers are giving corporations what they really want and leaving out the traditional desktop stuff that most businesses don’t need.

That means no more floppy drives or antiquated ports, no more monster-sized hard disks or gargantuan metal CPU cases. True, the new generation of PCs doesn’t completely reinvent the traditional model: You still have a keyboard, a monitor, a mouse, and a processor. But the new machines are an awful lot simpler than they used to be. And that makes them easier to manage and ultimately less expensive to own.

Better yet, the new desktop designs let you use the same management strategies you’re accustomed to. Unlike thin-client architectures, these approaches don’t force you to adopt a new computing model; you’re dealing with real PCs that can be managed just as in a conventional system. Moreover, solutions such as ClearCube Technology’s C3 rack system let you streamline management and administration while also eliminating physical security and remote-access problems.

But are all these new developments for real? Should you consider cutting-edge machines the next time you have to buy a round of desktop hardware?

Computing without the frills

For many companies, the most promising recent development has been the desktop’s changing form. For decades all we saw was one enormous, blocky beast after another. But the old boxes are finally being phased out in favor of smaller, lighter machines that still perform well enough for enterprise settings. The new desktops are easy to use, flexible, portable, powerful, and no more expensive than regular desktops. In other words, they’re perfect for constantly changing, Internet-based organizations.

The new “legacy-free” desktops, such as Compaq Computer Corp.’s iPaq and IBM Corp.’s NetVista, prove that the major computer manufacturers are looking seriously at what corporations really need. For example, nearly all of the new models come with Wake-on-LAN NICs (network interface cards) to enable remote management tasks from the IT department’s servers. The NetVista’s Update Connector Manager even monitors your stable of computers and automatically downloads and installs updates, thereby reducing your IT staff’s workload.

What you don’t get are the legacy features that modern e-businesses no longer need. Floppy disk drives are gone, as are (in many cases) the serial, parallel, mouse, and keyboard ports. Also gone are the slots and bays waiting to be filled with accessories such as DVD-ROM drives and CD burners, which may be great for at-home hobbyists but unnecessary in most business settings. Instead, the new machines have completely embraced USB. Yes, after years of promises, USB devices are now plentiful and effective, meaning you can plug virtually any type of device into the same port and easily blend USB-based desktops into your current networking environment.

Even upgradability — probably the chief allure of the mammoth desktops of old — isn’t as important as it used to be. Indeed, the concept of upgrading has actually become reprehensible in the minds of many IT chiefs and CFOs. And rightly so. After all, you usually upgrade to to add more memory or storage (usually the result of not buying enough in the first place), not when your users’ demands suddenly change. And if you’ve ever tried to upgrade a desktop you know all about hardware conflicts, new drivers, flash upgrades, and huge amounts of downtime, to say nothing of the red ink splattered all over the cubicle walls.

When the time comes to upgrade a legacy-free desktop, you simply buy a new one. That may sound like a massive cash commitment, but it actually ends up costing you less: By the time a machine is obsolete, it’s obsolete, period, so there’s no point wasting money on upgrade projects that are more trouble than they’re worth. Indeed, Giga Information Group Inc. recommends iPaqs as the most cost-effective way for deploying Windows 2000.

Besides, a legacy-free desktop doesn’t cost any more than a conventional desktop. For example, a 64MB iPaq goes for a mere $500; if you want more memory to run Windows 2000, the price rises only to $700. Meanwhile, the NetVista checks in at $700. Those figures are right in line with similar beige-box prices.

And that’s not all. The new breed of desktops also generate indirect savings that may present an even more compelling sales pitch. For starters, shipping costs should drop enormously, because legacy-free machines are as much as 80 percent smaller and lighter than comparably performing beige boxes. But even more important is saving money by reducing demands on your IT staff. Setting up a legacy-free machine is much easier than setting up a conventional desktop, partly because the new desktops can be picked up and carried with one hand and partly because features such as the USB ports and devices mean fewer visits to the IT department.

A final reason for moving to legacy-free desktops is their smaller footprint. Smaller machines, obviously, can fit into smaller spaces — an important consideration in industries where space is at a premium. And your staffers will be happier if they can put their systems where they want rather than just where they happen to fit.

Networked and powerless

An even more radical departure than the legacy-free machine is the thin client. In theory, a thin client offers a tempting mix of manageability and affordability. But the reality is that thin clients have historically worked only in limited installations: These machines are too skimpy on power and too inflexible to satisfy the enterprise user. Not only that, but you’re often still stuck with the problem of desktop hardware requirements, as many thin clients continue to rely on local devices such as hard drives.

Thin clients are most successful when they’re part of a cohesive installation that doesn’t place huge demands on individual desktop power, such as point-of-sale systems in retail stores. But if you’re looking to replace desktops in a business setting, thin clients probably aren’t your best bet. Your users are likely to miss the power and flexibility of a traditional desktop.

In fact, the thin-client hardware model is already in danger of being surpassed by the browser-based software model. Companies such as ThinkFree.com promise access to all your applications from any computer equipped with a browser. In addition to hosting the applications, these companies also provide online storage, meaning you can work from virtually any computer connected to the Internet. This way, your IT staff does not have to fuss with maintenance issues such as installation, upgrades, and licensing. On the other hand, performance isn’t likely to be very good, and your service provider may not offer the applications you want.

But that’s not to say thin clients are dead. ClearCube has taken a radically simple approach to the idea with its C3 architecture. Like thin clients, the desktop is piped in from a closet or IT office, but the difference is each desktop has its own dedicated machine. The ClearCube lets you squeeze eight Intel-based desktops on one rack, and the racks are small enough that you can store hundreds of desktops in a room the size of a hotel closet. As a result, your IT department can easily access those machines, making deployment, support, and maintenance a snap. Meanwhile, all your users see on their desktops is a tiny console about the size of a paperback.

Where the silicon hits the desk

So what do all of these new advances mean to you? Lots of things. In the case of the legacy-free machine, it means you finally have the option to buy only what you need and nothing more. In the case of racks such as the ClearCube C3, it means your IT staff can monitor, maintain, and upgrade your users’ desktops much more easily than before.

Also keep in mind that the demand for processing power may be on the uptake again. With broadband connections becoming standard operating equipment in many businesses, more and more corporate workgroups are integrating video and audio into their rosters of business tools. It is therefore more important than ever to buy fast processors. But can you really afford to buy them in boxes equipped with all manner of unnecessary frills or to conduct piecemeal upgrades staggered over a period of weeks or months?

In short, the desktop isn’t going away anytime soon, but it’s clearly undergoing a metamorphosis. And if you’re tired of all the revolutions that have failed to deliver on their promises only to take a bite out your budget, be of good faith: The changing desktop is good news. Finally, the ubiquitous PC is being built for the enterprise, rather than merely being adopted by the enterprise.

Senior Editor Steve Jefferson has been arguing about desktop systems for 15 years. You can reach him at steve_jefferson@infoworld.com.

THE BOTTOM LINE

New-breed desktop technologies

Business Case: The latest desktop models are much better designed for corporate needs and consequently less expensive (at least in the long run). Their smaller size translates into installation, deployment, and space savings. The same is true of rack systems, which centralize all your users’ PCs in one spot, thereby giving your IT department easy access to every machine. More importantly, the new desktops are inexpensive enough that they allow you to develop a planned replacement program, thus eliminating the constant need to upgrade.

Technology Case: Legacy-free desktops reduce the headaches involved with upgrading (such as hardware conflicts). Most legacy-free desktops rely heavily on USB technology, often eschewing specialized serial and parallel ports. Meanwhile, solutions such as ClearCube’s C3 increase security and access to hardware while also rendering Wake-on-LAN and similar management technologies essentially worthless by comparison.

Pros:

+ Lower costs

+ Easy to manage, maintain, and upgrade

+ Smaller desktop footprint

Cons:

– Requires an initial cash investment

– Rack systems minimize user flexibility

– May require adoption of USB technologies

Copyright 2000 InfoWorld (US), International Data Group Inc. All rights reserved.

Prices listed are in US currency.