Blade servers have become passé -- welcome the new blade PC. While sharing a PC between several users is not a brand new idea, one company is making a big success out of blades. It's the new face of thin client computing.
It's the combination of modern powerful processors and software technology which allows Texas-based ClearCube to build and market client systems that can be used and managed in much the same way as the now-familiar blade server. As a result, the company leads what so far is a fairly small market. But that could change.
The 11-year old company landed on the blade PC idea a few years ago, survived the bursting bubble of 2000-01, and now says that it's experiencing the kinds of growth that companies routinely reported five years ago.
"We have over 300 per cent growth in top line revenue year-on-year", said company president Carl Boisvert. "We have over 700 strategic customers -- such as Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, the CIA, the FBI and the UK's Ministry of Defence -- with growth coming from many sectors including financial services, healthcare, government, manufacturing and education."
How does it work? "We make eight blades and put them in a cage, and you can put that anywhere in the enterprise," said Boisvert. "The real significant change is that the only thing on the user's desk is a small box the size of a VCR." The box, known as a c/port, connects via USB to the back end blade, so keyboard, mouse and monitor apart, it's the only hardware the user needs.
Boisvert said that the advantages over separate PCs are many but boil down to lower operating costs. Safely tucked away in a centralised location, with each blade shared among several users, much of the cost savings result from centralised management.
"The system uses our CMS grid utility software, which provides hot-sparing and remote monitoring of remote blades, which you do using our management software. It adds data fail-over, and can switch users on demand over to another blade with more resources if required, automatically. And one IT guy can manage up to 1,000 blades remotely," said Boisvert.
Other savings emanate from the ease with which moves, adds and changes can be implemented. "It's a big cost for financial houses -- thousands of pounds," said Boisvert.
The other big gain is the added security the blades offer, said Boisvert. "It's policy-based", he said. "You can lock down the systems so users cannot access any external storage device such as a USB key or floppy disk."
What that also adds is reliability because of the controlled environment in which the blades operate. Add in the ergonomic advantages for users of fewer wires and lack of fan noise, and the case seems impregnable. Boisvert admitted that ClearCube's systems cost "three to four times" as much as the equivalent PC but, he said, "we're not in competition with white box PCs."
Boisvert reckons that ClearCube is on a roll. A year after the company inked a deal with IBM to OEM its kit, the arrangement brings in 16 per cent of ClearCube's income. "It means we get into a pseudo-OEM contract where IBM's PC specialists are able to sell ClearCube blades and have their commission paid by IBM," said Boisvert.
Evidence of the company's confidence includes its expectation of going public later this year -- and the glee displayed by the three company executives we interviewed when they learned of HP boss Carly Fiorina's recent resignation. The only real competitor, HP sells Transmeta-based blade PCs but "we expect them to redouble their game", said Boisvert.
ClearCube senior technologist Ken Knotts provides the real-world driver for his company's blades. "I spoke at a meeting of IT VPs. They all agreed that there are new employees in their organisations but no new IT staff and no new budget. The result is that they're becoming more business-oriented. Today, business is driving technology not the other way round."
The question is whether enterprises will embrace this new version of the thin PC wholesale or, as they have mostly done in the past, ignore it.