Blades offer compromise between PCs, thin clients

On the one hand is the conventional PC — a dedicated machine with all the intelligence on the desktop. Users like them because they are really personal computers. On the other hand is the thin client — basically a terminal connected to a central server. Removing as much function and as many moving

parts as possible from the desktop makes them easier to support.

Now a different twist on the thin client and on the increasingly popular idea of blade servers combines some advantages of each. PC blades, or data centre desktop blades as one vendor calls them, give each user a dedicated processor and storage, yet don’t put all that on the desktop.

Blades have been around for a while, but they’re typically used for servers. Being easy to slide in and out of a rack, they provide flexibility for quick upgrades and swapping out failed parts. A PC blade simply puts a personal computer on such a blade, which can then be mounted in a rack in the data centre and connected over the network to a thin-client device on the user’s desktop.

An Austin, Tex., company called ClearCube was the first to sell PC blades. Others include Hewlett-Packard Co. and Cubix Corp. of Carson City, Nev., which built its business on blade servers.

When you consider Palo Alto, Calif.-based HP’s move into the PC blade market in December, and IBM Global Services’ announcement last year that it would resell ClearCube’s blades, you have to think PC blades could be here to stay. HP’s entry into the market “”gives it more acceptability in the mainstream IT environment,”” says Bob O’Donnell, director of personal technology for Framingham, Mass.-based technology researcher International Data Corp.

O’Donnell does allow that PC blade manufacturers will need time to explain their products to the market. So far, the gadgets have found a couple of niche markets.

A few hospitals have implemented them, apparently because they want PCs in patient rooms but are concerned the cooling fans may spread contaminants — that’s a sensitive issue in hospitals. Military installations are also looking at them, motivated largely by the security benefit of locking the hard disks in a data centre.

One advantage of PC blades almost anyone could appreciate is that the most failure-prone parts of the PC sit in the data centre. Besides protecting them from accident and theft, this means that should one break, a technician doesn’t have to go out to the user’s desk to fix it. In fact with HP’s technology, the user just logs back on and is assigned a new blade.

PC blades aren’t for everyone. Their suitability for graphics-intensive applications is doubtful — ClearCube claims graphics performance is indistinguishable from conventional PCs, but others, including Tim Prime, product manager for commercial desktops at Hewlett-Packard (Canada) Ltd., say PC blades are for mainstream desktop work, not computer-aided design.

They also take up space in the data centre. But for those torn between conventional PCs and thin clients, they offer an interesting compromise.

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Grant Buckler
Grant Buckler
Freelance journalist specializing in information technology, telecommunications, energy & clean tech. Theatre-lover & trainee hobby farmer.

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