In the year since its first-generation product, ClearCube has pushed its blade workstation architecture concept even further on both the hardware and software fronts, and we like the results.

ClearCube pioneered the blade-based workstation. An I/Port sits on every user's desk, coupled to a display, keyboard, mouse, and USB-based peripherals. The actual workstation is located on a blade in a centrally managed rack in the data centre.

This architecture's impact on adds, moves, and changes is obvious (simply swap a card without ever sending a technician out the door), but it also boasts better security, reliability, and long-term cost savings. For installations in which workstation uptime is critical, ClearCube is a godsend.

Gleaming the ClearCube
ClearCube's new I/Ports, C/Ports, and workstation cards looked great when they arrived at our test lab. The desktop-oriented C/Port modules are still fanless and can talk back to the blade's brain counterparts as far as 200 metres over Cat 5.

On top of these, ClearCube added the missing component it needed to run a connection over truly long distances: Microsoft Remote Desktop. The tricky part here is that Microsoft Terminal Server functions by taking a limited resource and slicing it thinner and thinner with each additional client. ClearCube manages this with a high-density back end, bolstered by grid-style CPU pooling that alleviates the problems inherent in Terminal Server's time-sharing scheme.

Users' desktop setups stay mostly the same; for true telecommuting tasks, the new I/Port i8010 is based on an embedded Linux platform that provides only remote desktop capability. Meanwhile, the i8800 is based on embedded Windows XP and provides just enough Windows functionality to support VPNs and local printer support in addition to Remote Desktop.

Making I/Ports function as fully powered workstations is the job of a ClearCube PC Blade, and the company has upgraded the blades almost continuously during the past year. There are two basic varieties, the R1200 and the R2100; which one you choose will depend on whether your users require standard desktop power or a more muscular workstation.

The R1200 is the more mainstream blade, with Intel Pentium 4 (3.4GHz with HT) processors, as much as 2GB RAM, and an Intel Extreme Graphics subsystem all attached to a single ATA-based disk subsystem (as much as 120GB). The R2100, affectionately called the "Fatboy" or the "double-wide," is a double-sized blade carrying dual 3.06GHz Intel Xeon CPUs, as much as 4GB RAM; a high-end, Nvidia-based graphics subsystem; dual, gigabit-capable network connections; and other workstation-style tidbits, including a disk size as large as 120GB. Both cards can support multi-display options for hooking up as many as four displays to a single C/Port.

Software
On the software side, ClearCube made some significant changes to its CMS (ClearCube Management Suite) software, now in Version 4.0. The four core management modules (Blade Manager, Switch Manager, Data Failover, and Move Manager) all remain, albeit with a few changes.

Blade Manager now has added health- and asset-management features for decreased response time and better resource organization. Switch Manager sports a reorganised interface and the ability to hook into a SQL-based database for desktop inventory. There's also a new blade-swapping interface to make swapping both users and blades even easier, and you can now perform remote upgrades via the console.

Boosting flexibility
New modules in CMS 4.0 include Control Center and Grid Center. The Control Center is designed as a single console for organising all ClearCube management apps, and its look and feel is carried across all Manager module interfaces.

Control Center does its job admirably, and you can now build custom events thresholds across Manager modules. For example, you could set an event that will cut off a user's network connection if his or her e-mail send rate gets too high.

Grid Center is a useful module that manages the connections between blade workstations and I/Ports, including the capability to define pools of workstation blades that can be shared by a variable number of thin clients. So, a nurse or doctor in a ClearCube-enabled hospital could move from room to room (and from I/Port to I/Port) and always connect back to the same assigned blade.

This flexibility has great admin benefits: you can have more users than blades if you configure it correctly and keep a handle on users' workloads.

For really light applications, ClearCube runs WinConnectXP, an optional piece of software that's similar to Microsoft Terminal Server; it allows for as many as four simultaneous remote desktop clients to time-share a single blade.

In a nutshell, Grid Center provides IT administrators with a comprehensive toolkit for managing an increasingly complex set of client requirements. Most importantly, Grid Center lets administrators dynamically optimise hardware utilisation across pools of PC blades. That means administrators can track blade utilisation via loading statistics and can automatically route newly signed-on users to the least-utilised blades.

And there's happy news for help desk administrators: Grid Center allows them to switch users' I/Ports to different blade pools or specific unused blades via a fast software switch rather than the more complex procedure used in CMS 3.0.

ClearCube has spent significant time and effort beefing up usability and workstation power. It's time well spent, judging from the upgrades in flexibility and management.

If we had a wish list for ClearCube, it would be short: USB 2.0 in the I/Port and the C/Port, and a smoother bundle for wireless deployment. One last wish is that when we regenerate a blade, we could increase the number of USB CD-ROM drives supported.

The R2100 might be too much for most users, but given the high-power environments that ClearCube systems often occupy, such as financial and healthcare companies, it's an option the company had to have ready to address future needs. CMS 4.0 boasts a high shine compared to CMS 3.0, and will definitely ease the lives of ClearCube administrators -- especially those managing large installed bases.

More pricesThe cost of CMS 4.0 management system includes Grid Center, Control Center, Switch Manager, Blade Manager and Data Failover: £153. The prices for other components are: I/Port: £275; R2100 with 3GHz Pentium 4, 512MB RAM and 80GB disk: £809; R2100 with dual 2.8GHz Xeon, 512MB RAM and 80GB disk, £1,623

OUR VERDICT

ClearCube’s blade workstation system received significant upgrades over the past year, including more flexible desktop connectors (I/Ports), more powerful blades, and beefed-up management software in the form of CMS 4.0. All of these combine to make an already good product downright excellent.