Deployments raise profile of blade PCs

Several companies that have been kicking the tires on so-called blade PCs are starting to deploy the rack-mounted desktop technology in their data centres, looking for benefits such as increased security and ease of management.

For now, blade PCs are available only from start-up vendors like ClearCube Technology Inc. in Austin, Tex. But the devices, which put a desktop spin on the more prevalent blade server concept, are also starting to attract the attention of some leading PC vendors.

For example, a spokeswoman for Hewlett-Packard Co. recently said the company isn’t ready to disclose any plans to offer blade PC technology. But HP may be willing to address the topic in a month or two, she added.

Don McCall, a product marketing manager at Dell Computer Corp., said the company is monitoring ClearCube’s progress closely. For now, Dell doesn’t see enough demand to offer blade client technology, McCall said. “We do want to watch it, however,” he added.

ClearCube, which introduced its first products in 2000, shrinks PCs to blade-size devices that are installed in racks in data centers. End users connect to the blades through videotape-size control units that sit on desktops and include connections for monitors, keyboards and other peripheral devices.

BP Energy Co., a Houston-based gas, oil and energy trading firm, in November finished a rollout of 100 ClearCube blade clients at a new energy trading floor in Calgary.

It cost BP Energy about US$250,000 for the blade clients, including installation and software. But the project brought an immediate return on investment by doing away with the cost of maintaining individual desktop PCs and eliminating the need to buy trading-floor desks built to hold multiple systems, said Greg Miller, manager of infrastructure at the company.

“From an operational point of view, we’ve shrunk the envelope of potential problems,” Miller said. PC maintenance work can now be done “in a bulk format where we can deliver it economically,” he added, noting that technicians simply pull problematic blade devices out of the racks for service.

The Calgary trading floor is a prototype site for the rest of the company, Miller noted.

Avivah Litan, an analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn., said that although blade client technology is cutting-edge, the push to consolidate desktop PCs into data centres is several years old. Putting PCs in a data centre can help companies improve IT security by reducing unauthorized software downloads by end users, Litan said.

But Litan and other analysts said blade PCs could face resistance from end users who don’t want to lose control over their desktop systems.

That wasn’t a problem for Guy Fuller, IT manager at Chicago-based Northwestern Memorial Physicians Group, which deployed 200 ClearCube devices at a clinic two months ago. Fuller said the doctors embraced the blade client architecture because they felt PCs made too much noise in examination rooms.

The upfront cost of ClearCube’s technology was about 30 per cent higher than the price of traditional desktop PCs because Northwestern had to buy racks and vent its computer room to reduce the heat generated by the blade devices, Fuller said. But he added that he likes the technology so much that he plans to deploy it at Northwestern’s 11 other clinics by year’s end.