May 01 2006

Desktop Diet

Is it time to consider blade PCs?

Small businesses have joined large corporations in embracing blade servers for their processing-efficient, modular and scalable architecture. But is it time to consider blade PCs for the same reason?

“I like the concept [of blade PCs]. From an operational perspective, it simplifies things when everything is in one spot,” says Jeremy Noetzelman, vice president of information technology at Big Fish Games in Seattle. “Any time you start doing something with blade system equipment, you get a lot of efficiencies.”

Big Fish Games, a casual games portal with online communities and myriad download options for users, must accommodate dramatic usage spikes, such as those that coincide with the release of a new game. In order to access processing power during those peak times, the 80-person company invests heavily in blade servers. The company hasn’t yet explored blade PCs, but Noetzelman, like many IT leaders, wants to know whether the technology will offer the same advantages as blade servers.

So, why go with PC blades rather than desktop PCs or notebooks? Proponents of blade PCs say it’s about efficiency and optimizing existing processing resources. Like their server counterparts, blade PCs squeeze the guts of a computer — processor, memory, hard disk and other electronics — onto a specialized card that slides into a chassis with other blades in a centralized location. In many instances, blade PCs offer greater physical and data security, higher uptime and quieter operation, according to market researcher International Data Corp. (IDC). These factors are crucial for certain classes of users, notably those in large enterprises, security-conscious organizations, manufacturing sites, retail stores and environments such as hospitals, where high availability is essential.

And just as blade servers save floor space and eliminate rats-nest wiring in otherwise crowded data centers (see Tech Update), blade PCs leave an uncluttered desktop with just a network-attached thin-client device that connects the user’s keyboard, mouse and monitor to the blade in the server room.

Rather than trying to secure its existing inventory of desktop PCs — whose hard drives were vulnerable to theft and tampering, Northwestern Memorial Physicians Group (NMPG) replaced more than 110 systems with blade PCs from ClearCube last year. The blade PC environment allows the Chicago-based healthcare provider to keep the monitor, keyboard and mouse in patient examination rooms, for example, while the processor board (known as a blade) is rack-mounted in a telecom closet or medical supply room. The rack, containing up to eight blades, is linked via a USB cable to a small desktop device that connects the monitor keyboard and mouse.

By deploying blade PCs, NMPG estimated that it could reduce upgrade time by 57 percent because IT staff could work from a central location, rather than having to move from desk to desk, says Guy Fuller, the healthcare provider’s information systems manager. IT support time, including upgrading components, could be cut by 76 percent, while the time spent to move, add or change users could be cut in half, according to a study NMPG conducted.

Overall, the study found that in a four-year period, NMPG would save approximately $3,000 per blade PC.

Additional reporting by Cara Cunningham

CEO takeaway
If your IT manager has an interest in blade PCs, make sure you ask the following questions:
• Which workers should receive blade PC workstations? Blade PCs are best suited for environments that require high availability and where workers don’t need to access unique applications. Because individual workstations don’t contain processors, all software is centrally located.
• Which vendor are you considering? It’s a newer technology, so ensure that the vendor you select has market staying power.
• Are you familiar with the blade architecture? Blade PCs, like blade servers, offer centralized management of processing resources, so make sure that your IT staff is technically able to manage and maintain a blade system.