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Start-up brings 'blades' to the desktop

Superthin blade computers have taken the server and storage markets by storm. Now a company called ClearCube is bringing the idea to desktop workstations.

Twenty-one years ago, the computer left the "glass house" for the desktop. Now a start-up appropriately named ClearCube wants to send it back.

The Austin, Texas-based company is trying to popularize a new vision for office computing where users would still have monitors, mice and keyboards on their desks, but their superthin computers would be neatly stacked in centralized computer rooms--the descendents of yesteryear's so-called glass houses.

The contemporary twist involves "blade"-style design, in which thin devices are stacked vertically in racks like books or record albums. Although the blade concept has taken the server and storage markets by storm, ClearCube's effort would be the first major attempt to bring the idea to desktop workstations.

"It's sort of like thin clients, but it's running all the same software as regular desktops," said Roger Kay, an analyst at market research firm IDC. "They've got some of the biggies sniffing around looking at them."

Thin client workstations aren't independent computers--the hard drives, personal data and applications are all stored on servers, and if the servers go down, the desktops become paperweights. Hence thin clients have never taken off. But blade workstations would be full-fledged PCs.

ClearCube said several large companies are considering licensing or reselling elements of its technology. "We are in discussion with large OEMs," said Raj Shah, the company's chief marketing officer. Although Shah declined to name names, Hewlett-Packard has most frequently been mentioned as a potential ally. Acquisition rumors have floated around as well. Investors include Acer, and Sternhill Partners, a venture firm that counts former chief Compaq Computer strategist Robert Stearns among its number.

Like the blade server, a blade workstation of the type ClearCube envisions has the potential to drastically cut the costs associated with maintenance. The machines can be kept in a small space, letting administrators do more work without having to leave their office and roam. That means more efficient administrators, and thus, possibly, a smaller administrative staff.

"It is much easier for me to support racked PCs," said Capt. Timothy Ohrenberger of the U.S. Air Force. "The waiting time for customer-support work orders is about 50 percent lower."

Ohrenberger oversaw a pilot program involving 44 ClearCube blades run by the medical services unit of Hill Air Force Base in Utah. He found that computer downtime dropped by 95 percent and IT staff time per PC fell 83 percent.

ClearCube says that blade desktops also improve security and overall system utilization. Even the costs associated with shuffling an employee from one desk to another are cut, because no equipment actually gets moved. In a downtown high-rise, that can mean a lot.

"These are union buildings," said ClearCube CEO Mike Frost. "You can't just up and move a box. It can cost $1,000 or more."

Despite the potential advantages of ClearCube's approach, though, the fact remains that start-ups get crushed on a regular basis in the hardware world. The company claims, however, that its patents provide some insulation from a sudden onslaught by the likes of Dell or IBM.

One business-process patent, for instance, applies to a method for managing PCs in a central rack, said Shah. Others apply to security protocols for protecting data in transit.

Privately held ClearCube won't reveal its revenue or most of its customers but said that both sales and customer test programs are growing.

Morgan Stanley, and The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) headquarters in Cheyenne Mountain, Wyo., are both experimenting with ClearCube's workstations. And a large financial services company is deploying test systems in New York, Hong Kong and London, ClearCube said. The report from Hill Air Force Base has been submitted to the Air Force Medical Support Agency, the purchasing arm for the medical unit, which will determine whether these systems can be purchased on a nationwide basis.

Latitude to longitude
Since the beginning of 2001, "blades" has been one of the major buzzwords of the computing world. Unlike regular computers, blades come with no external case. Instead, they are naked circuit boards containing processors, memory, input-output components, and, more often than not, independent hard drives.

Rather than sit on a desk or remain stacked horizontally in a rack, blades slide vertically into a specialized rack that contains all the wiring necessary to hook the computers into the network.

The architectural change brings a host of benefits, according to analysts and computer executives. The physical real estate required for computers gets greatly reduced. Computers can also be more efficiently used: an administrator can deploy a batch of blades to handle e-mail in the morning and then convert them to Web servers later. Management software and physical proximity make this possible.

Although nearly everyone has adopted the blade ethos for servers or storage systems--which are already generally kept in centralized computer rooms--some of the benefits apply to the desktop.

For one thing, desktop blades reduce walking-around time. On their desks, users get a monitor, keyboard, mouse and a C/Port, a phone-sized input-output unit for connecting the stuff together. A cable, cloaked in security protocols, connects the C/Port to the user's Pentium 4 computer in the back room. 112 computers can be squeezed onto a six-foot rack.

In the Hill trial, for example, the time required to load software dropped from 9 minutes to 3.5 minutes. With conventional desktops, each PC has to be unboxed, then taken to a computer room, then connected to an imaging station, then taken down for final testing and deployment.

In the rack, after the first software image was loaded, it could be replicated across all other desktops, said the Air Force's Ohrenberger.

Additionally, blade desktops can bring some perks that aren't practical on standard desktops. ClearCube's racks typically contain one or two spare blades. If someone's PC dies, an administrator can swap the affected employee to a spare blade.

Potentially, this could make the technology popular for retail brokerages "where you have hundreds or even thousands of desktops," said Jerry Silva, senior analyst at the Tower Group, which studies the impact of IT on the financial-services market. While exact savings are difficult to quantify, increased computer reliability does cut costs, he added.

But what about the data?
The software-management package that comes with ClearCube's blades includes an application that backs up data from one individual drive to two or three others in the same rack.

"There's tons of extra disk space everywhere," said ClearCube's Shah, who noted that very few people use up the full 20GB to 30GBs found in drives today. Secure partitions prevent employees from accessing any backup data their PC happens to host.

Blading also permits a form of mobile computing. Since the drive and other computing elements are located in a central location, users can log in to the network at any available keyboard and connect to their "desktop," said Shah. The Oklahoma Heart Hospital, among others, has experimented with putting log-in terminals in patient rooms that can be accessed by doctors or nurses with smart cards.

Bladed desktops do create security problems, but the company says it has resolved most of these and pushed forward to a point where security actually improves. The ports on the desktop can be blocked. Users, therefore, can't plug unknown, and potentially infected, devices onto the network.

"What's available to the outside world, essentially, is a jack" to connect to the network, said Kay.

The cable connecting the desktop unit and the blade rack can run for 200 meters, or about twice as long as what's required in the vast majority of office buildings. A secure fiber connection that will let the connection go to two kilometers is in the works, Shah said.

A security wrapper prevents data from being sniffed on the connection cable, and the blades are stacked so close together that Ethernet signals would be difficult to separate.

With these factors in mind, the company is targeting several markets: military and government offices (where security concerns are paramount), health care (for remote computing) and financial and manufacturing companies (where space is paramount).

Nothing's ever perfect, however. Squeezing hundreds of Pentium 4 desktops into a centralized rack requires companies to find space in computing rooms and equip the rooms with adequate cooling and noise baffling.

The requisite cooling fans "do make a lot of noise, but it is in the data center," Shah said.

The hardware's also not cheap, leading to a equipment bill that can be 50 percent to 60 percent more expensive, after the specialized racks and other equipment is added together. "They are considerably more expensive," said Ohrenberger.

Nonetheless, Ohrenberger added, "the total cost of ownership bears it out that in the long run it is better."