PC Blades: Poised To Take Off?

When the Northwestern Memorial Physicians Group, had a system challenge, it turned to a technology that's starting to gain a foothold in enterprise data centers: PC blades.

April 5, 2004

8 Min Read
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Guy Fuller, manager of I.T. for the Northwestern Memorial Physicians Group, had a problem that many business-technology executives face: how to provide the power and flexibility offered by a PC to doctors and nurses working in the group's 11 clinics in the Chicago area, while also setting up a system that provides tough security and easy manageability.

Fuller had some additional challenges. He wanted to provide that computing power in examination rooms unobtrusively, but he also needed to comply with new regulations governing data privacy. He turned to a technology that's starting to gain a foothold in enterprise data centers: PC blades.

Only about 40,000 PC blades were shipped last year, but analysts predict that number will jump to 350,000 this year and to 6.5 million in 2008. The emerging market got a boost last month when Hewlett-Packard shipped its first PC blade. HP joins a market that to date has been pioneered by smaller players such as ClearCube Technology Inc. and Avocent Corp. in conjunction with Cubix Corp. Other major PC vendors like Dell and IBM are waiting for the market to grow and mature.

"You've got HP now ratifying a market that up to this point only small vendors have played in," says Roger Kay, an analyst with research firm IDC. "Other PC vendors are looking at how this comes out."

The definition of a PC blade and its configuration can vary. But it's similar in function to the more established server blade. In some instances, the two platforms overlap. A typical implementation consists of a board containing a processor and related components. The board, or blade, is placed in server-style racks. Each one is then connected by Category 5 cable or fiber to a dedicated client station consisting of a monitor, keyboard, and mouse. All processing, memory, and storage remain in the backroom rack.By using PC blades, Northwestern Memorial Physicians Group can provide physicians with access to patient data in each exam room while reducing the risk of unauthorized access, Fuller says. Another plus: Using only a monitor, keyboard, and mouse in exam rooms reduces heat and noise, and eliminates the need for in-room technician maintenance.

"One of my biggest fears was if a physician is in the process of performing some procedure with a patient and in pops one of my technicians to work on a computer that's down," Fuller says.

The physicians' group, which is owned by Northwestern Memorial Hospitals, decided about 18 months ago to install blade PCs from ClearCube in each of its offices. The blade racks were placed in backroom closets. Depending on the size of the clinic, nine to 21 separate Pentium III-based PC blades were placed in each rack, powering a similar number of exam-room client stations.

Northwestern Memorial Physicians Group also added the XyLoc security solution from Ensure Technologies Inc., which requires physicians to wear a radio-frequency identification tag as part of their ID badges. When they enter an exam room, the client station recognizes them, activates, and is then accessed with a personal identification number. When the physician leaves the room, the terminal automatically locks.

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which sets rules on data privacy and security, "was a concern, and we needed the ability to ensure that if a physician left the room, the patient information could not be accessed by anyone else," Fuller says.The PC-blade installation also helps to comply with Sarbanes-Oxley requirements for securing financial information, because no accounting information is stored locally but is housed in a central location, he says. Vertical industries such as medical, government, finance, and education are prime candidates for using PC blades, says Ron Enderle, an analyst with the Enderle Group. "The major driver right now is that it creates the potential for improved security," he says. "The market, however, has been limited in the past by the lack of a solid presence of large vendors, which HP's entry should help alleviate."

Another advantage offered by PC blades is easier system maintenance, says Rick Johnsen, senior network engineer for the Air Force Security Forces Center Headquarters at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. About two years ago, the security headquarters was preparing to move into a new building and making its regularly scheduled PC upgrade. Johnsen says he wanted to find a way to better manage the hundreds of computers used at the site for coordination of all Air Force police services and security of bases.

Johnsen considered thin clients run by traditional servers, but didn't want to force military policemen and his technical staff to have to learn programs such as Linux, Unix, and Solaris that are associated with the technology.

Instead, he went to ClearCube. About 96 Pentium 4-based PC blades were installed to handle network client stations that provide access to unclassified information. Johnsen still needed an answer for the classified network, which can't use Category 5 cable because it generates electromagnetic emanations that can be detected remotely.

ClearCube developed a fiber connection, and the security headquarters in November added 74 blades and terminals. "With all the security vulnerabilities we have to deal with every day, I needed an easier way to manage than having my system administrators run around from PC to PC to distribute security patches, do updates, and enforce policy," Johnsen says. By consolidating the processors and storage in a secured location, the technicians can now access the blades remotely for maintenance.Similarly, the Headquarters Support Command center for the Coast Guard in Buzzard Point, Washington, D.C., had to make security improvements when it became a part of the Department of Homeland Security. Sept. 11 "escalated our security communications needs," says Lt. Commander Kip Whiteman, chief of information services.

Whiteman needed to create a secure communications platform for use by the senior officers and executive-service civilians at the headquarters. The center installed a Cubix PC-blade system using Xeon processors, connected by fiber to 30 Avocent client stations. "If you don't give them tools to communicate securely, and do it in a way that's efficient and convenient and meets their needs, I think a lot of important conversations just don't happen," Whiteman says.

The Coast Guard has been so satisfied with the Buzzard Point installation that it's considering similar efforts for its Atlantic and Pacific command centers, he says.

Solidiform Inc., a manufacturer of aluminum castings used in the aerospace and automotive industries, is another believer in PC blades. The company wanted to move its PCs from engineers' offices to the manufacturing floor to improve the production flow by having on-site analysis of items such as 3-D modeling, says IT manager Craig Sanders.

Conventional PCs couldn't survive long on the factory floor where aluminum dust would damage them, and thin clients didn't have the video quality needed, Sanders says. Solidiform installed six Xeon-based blades made by Cubix in a back room to control six Avocent manufacturing-floor PCs, he says.In addition to improving security, the PC-blade installations reduce desk clutter, eliminate fan noise and equipment heat from the manufacturing floor or work center, and provide a lower total cost of ownership by centralizing the computing centers, says Ken Knotts, senior technologist and director of marketing for ClearCube.

He cites an installation at Norad, the North American Aerospace Defense Command in the Cheyenne Mountains near Colorado Springs, Colo. Individuals at Norad would often have three or four PCs on their desktops, and going to blade terminals has improved security and eliminated the "clutter, heat, and noise nightmare," Knotts says. HP jumped into the PC blade market because its customers asked it to, says Tad Bodeman, director of thin clients and blade PC solutions for HP. In March, it began offering two PC blades using 1-GHz Transmeta processors. "They told us we were doing a great job of solving some of their concerns like server consolidation," Bodeman says. "But while they might have 5,000 servers, they had 50,000 PCs to manage. Blade PCs give users the full desktop experience and dramatically reduce the support and systems-management costs, and significantly improve security."

Other vendors are more cautious and uncertain that PC blades will ever amount to a large market. IBM has partnered with ClearCube on specific customer projects and began reselling the ClearCube product with an IBM label in the Japanese market.

PC blades cost $1,200 or more and will have a hard time competing on price with a conventional desktop PC that sells for around $500, says Howard Locker, chief architect for IBM desktops and laptops. "We also believe that you can get 90% to 95% of the blade PC [total cost of ownership] benefits on a desktop," he says. "Customers in the past have just not looked to create such controlled user environments."

PC blades move heat and noise problems from the desktop, but they consolidate those problems in the back-office racks in the data center, often requiring expensive installations, he says.Dell is monitoring the PC-blade market and has begun offering alternatives that it believes are a better answer, says Don McCall, product marketing manager for Dell's corporate desktop business. The company has an undisclosed number of customers who are racking and stacking PCs in a back room and using Avocent stations at the desktop. It also launched a thin-PC program that customers are evaluating, he says. With thin PCs, hard drives and flash memory are removed from the terminals, which are connected to a backroom server platform.

"We don't want to force-feed a hardware solution into a customer's enterprise," McCall says. "We can step into the market if customers demand it, but, at this point, it's not clear there will be a large business for blade PCs."

IDC's Kay believes others will enter the market as volumes grow, leading to more choices, standardization, and potentially a weeding-out of existing vendors. "If you look at the gaming PC market, companies like Alienware, Voodoo PC, and Falcon Northwest were trucking along with volumes of a few thousand a month," Kay says. "When the big boys like Dell, HP, and Gateway entered the market, they cranked it up by an order of magnitude."

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