NORAD gives thumbs up to blade PCs

The guys who safeguard the skies over North America are advocates of the rackable desktop.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
3 min read
The people who monitor the skies over North America for the first sign of attack say they like the blade PC.

The North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, is nearly finished converting from using standard desktop PCs to blade PCs from ClearCube Technology in its Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station, said Garland Garcia, network chief at CMAFS' Network Control Center.

Blade PCs differ from standard PCs in that they sit in a rack in a central computer room. Users tap into them through a keyboard and a communications port on their desk. Unlike thin clients, each blade has its own hard drive and processor. Although blade PCs aren't nearly as popular as blade servers, a number of Wall Street firms have adopted them for some operations.

By keeping the PCs in a centralized rack, maintenance costs can be lowered while security can be improved. It also saves desk space.

All three of these factors are important at NORAD. The CMAFS operation center is located deep inside a mountain in Wyoming. Inside, individuals pore over huge maps of North America, monitoring all air traffic in real time and looking for missiles or runaway planes.

"The map on any point in a given day is totally covered with airplanes," Garcia said. Since Sept. 11, aircraft has been scrambled 2,700 times to check out an anomaly spotted by NORAD.

Historically, the individuals monitoring air traffic had three to five PCs at their desk hooked into five networks: a standard, unclassified network; two separate classified networks; and a classified network that is shared with Canada.

"I've got about 2,400 users. We're inside a granite mountain so space is at a premium," Garcia said.

With the ClearCube blades, each user has a single keyboard and communication port that connects to three to five PCs in the rack. Users toggle between PCs by pressing function keys on the keyboard. (Large, colored borders--red for classified networks, green for unclassified--surround the screen so agents don't get confused about what network they are using).

"We have far less support tickets, and the only thing we can attribute it to is that the users can't touch their computers. They can't kick them every time they get up from their desk."

Security is also easier. Before installing blade PCs, users had to remove their hard drives and lock them in a safe. Now all the hard drives remain in a secure room.

High-level intelligence agents were put on blade PCs in 2001, Garcia said, while NORAD just completed the process of putting the individuals who monitor air traffic, a fairly substantial portion of NORAD's work force, on blades. Soon, the administrative staff will likely be put on blades, he added.

How do the individuals monitoring the skies get the word out that something might be amiss? Phones remain the preferred mode of communication, but NORAD also uses a proprietary version of messaging that differs from the software--Incoming 4U--available commercially.

ClearCube competes with Hewlett-Packard in this market. HP, however, chose Transmeta processors for its blades. Transmeta recently announced it is cutting back on chip production.