IBM is promising high performance 3D graphics from a new, blade-format workstation that's remotely accessed by a thin client. Thin clients, whether in this format or as virtual machines, have previously been unable to reproduce 3D graphics or real-time video for remote viewing with the performance of a fat client workstation.

The HC10, essentially a headless PC in a blade server format, fits into IBM's BladeCenter chassis and offers what IBM Fellow Dr. Tom Bradicich described as a high-end workstation experience.

Uniquely, the HC10 can reproduce 3D graphics and real time video over a network without the cost and energy consumption of a fat client, according to IBM.

The device is aimed at applications such as financial market trading desks and those working with 3D graphics. The benefits, according to Bradicich and Joe Makoid, the president of IBM collaborator Devon IT, are that the system combines the advantages of thin clients, such as central manageability, low power usage and security, at the cost of a mid-range 3D workstation. IBM reckoned the combination of thin client and blade consumed 30 percent less power than a typical workstation.

The thin client to which the HC10 connects is the TC10, made by IBM partner Devon IT. At the moment, only the TC10 contains the requisite hardware to decompress the graphics stream, although Bradicich said that the proprietary protocol is before the VESA video standards committee and is expected to be published by the end of 2007. Bradicich said the remote desktop technology used by the device is unrelated to RDP, the established standard.

The blade contains a standard PC, powered by a 2.66GHz Intel (Conroe) Core Duo processor, up to 4GB of RAM and a hardware graphics compression engine, which Bradicich said was developed by a partner company that has yet to go public.

The impressive graphics performance, which we saw demonstrated, is produced by an nVidia graphics chip, the results are then compressed and passed to the network interface for packaging into IP packets and transmission.

The bandwidth consumed by the system will allow several users to share a 100Mbit/sec Ethernet pipe, according to Bradicich, who said that a 3D application would consume about 20-30Mbit/sec. He said that less intensive applications might use only 10 per cent of that.

The TC10 also supports high-definition audio and up to four USB devices, which can be locked down at the blade.

A hard disk is bundled into the HC10 and contains the OS image. It could boot off the SAN, according to Bradicich, but for software licensing issues, the blade needs to boot from local storage.

Pricing won't be released until 5 June, but Bradicich said it would be "quite competitive"; our guess is somewhere around $2,500-$3,000, on top of which customers will need a BladeCenter chassis and associated management modules.

IBM blade server VP Doug Balog said that the HC10 offers better performance than systems by competitor ClearCube, which has so far made much of the running in the remotely hosted desktop PC market.