How Blades Are Reinventing the PC Wheel

Are the days of fat client PCs -- Windows, Mac, and Linux -- numbered?

Server Blades have been a Next Big Thing for a while now, but—thanks to improvements in processing power, virtualization software, and, of course, blade management software—they are finally starting to deliver on this vision, analysts say. Some industry watchers argue we're seeing a revival of that most unsinkable once-and-future Next Big Thing: the Network Computer.

Blade proponents, such as Dell Computer Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP), and IBM Corp., tout densely-packed, highly-virtualized server blades that can scale to enormous configurations, be reconfigured on the fly, and from which typical administrative functions (installation of applications, server maintenance, backup, recovery, and more) can be managed from a single interface.

It’s a message that’s attracted customers. According to market watcher International Data Corp. (IDC), server blade revenues grew at any impressive rate (36.7 percent) during Q2—marking the third consecutive quarter of such growth, IDC said. Moreover, researchers point out, blades are the fastest growing segment in the overall server market. "Customers are increasing their blade deployments and vendors are broadening the blades product portfolio," said Jed Scaramella, a research analyst in IDC's Enterprise Computing group.

Moreover, Scaramella and IDC expect the trend to continue. "[B]lades are in the next wave of product evolution and customer adoption. As IT organizations become more familiar with the platform, they are able to deploy blades in IT environments that are suited to take advantage the management capabilities, as well as the cost and serviceability benefits."

Thin Client Déjà Vu All Over Again.

Currently, blades provide an easier, more manageable way to configure and deploy servers, allocate (or reallocate) resources, and respond (in the back-end) to changing business demands. Some see the back-end processing power of server blades as central to a new/old idea—that of a thin client or network computer. The latest spin on thin or network computing is the personal computer (PC) blade—basically, a full-blown Win32 or Win64 operating environment running in a virtual machine (VM) on a blade.

PC blades promise a new and altogether more manageable PC experience, causing some folks to reconsider the role (and the endurance) of the fat client personal computer. What’s more, some say, there’s reason to think that this vision of the network computer actually has legs.

"[C]ounter-currents [against the PC] are building," says Gordon Haff, a principal IT advisor with consultancy Illuminata. When (a decade ago) Oracle chief Larry Ellison first trumpeted his vision of network-bound thin clients—i.e., gussied up dumb terminals with GUI dressings—neither he nor other proponents could offer a compelling alternative to the platform reach (and enormously popular Win16 and Win32 APIs) of Microsoft Corp.’s Windows and Office offerings. Though compelling, Office alternatives are still incubating; a number of technologies, including Web 2.0 (and collaborative thin applications such as Gmail or Google Apps) augur the advent of an increasingly thin future, Haff believes.

"As time has rolled on, what’s possible on a 'thin client' … has markedly increased. Alternative client architectures are getting more and more discussed, and even implemented," he observes.

All the same, Haff stops short of predicting the imminent demise of the venerable personal computer: "The PC hasn’t—and isn’t—going away en masse, but it’s increasingly accessing applications in ways that avoid having desktops that are tightly tied to a specific set of installed applications and a specific user’s data and settings."

More to the point, he isn’t just talking about the PC, per se, but about any fat-client computing platform—even Linux and MacOS—running in a distributed topology. The salient issue, he stresses, is that all distributed systems require customization, configuration, updating, and hardware maintenance.

It's true that Microsoft and others have pushed to make the PC more manageable. In this respect, today’s PCs are several orders of magnitude more manageable than the Windows 95- and Windows NT-powered beasts of a decade ago. The bad news, Haff says, is that a PC is still a PC: yes, it has distinct advantages over its dumb-terminal predecessors—particularly with respect to productivity and empowerment—but it also has disadvantages, particularly with respect to manageability and security, that can’t be eliminated in conventional deployment scenarios.

"In spite of such advances, PC administration still requires significant effort and cost—especially for smaller businesses that don’t necessarily have the scale and IT staff to implement centralized PC management software and policies," he points out.

Turning "Simplicity Over Security" On Its Head

More troubling still, Haff continues, are the difficulties involved in securing today’s largely autonomous, widely-distributed PCs.

"They give a powerful, general-purpose computer to every user, and by design, they favor simplicity over security," he observes. "Their local hard disks often store data that either a company or its customers consider sensitive. While it’s possible to implement policies and procedures to encrypt this data or to store it only on secured file servers, the PC’s origins and inherent nature as a personal computer makes it difficult to put a truly bulletproof security framework in place."

The PC blade vision turns this model on its head, promising a one-stop shop for management, maintenance, and security administration.

"From a security perspective, one of the attractive aspects of thin clients is that they typically don’t store data locally. In many cases, they can also be configured so that data can’t even be extracted through them to media such as USB memory sticks or disks," Haff indicates. "Such features start to look very attractive when newspaper headlines about data breaches are commonplace and the personal consequences to compliance failures can be scary."

PC blades may not shortchange the user, either. "Blade PCs fall at the high-performance end of the thin-client spectrum. Each user gets the full use of a dedicated server—in this case, a blade server, typically connected to shared storage," Haff explains.

The Blade PC isn’t a slam dunk, of course: bandwidth-intensive (and latency-sensitive) applications, such as high-resolution graphics or full-motion video, simply don’t work as well in the Blade PC model. The upshot: Blade vendors are developing proprietary accelerators to address these shortcomings. HP—which IDC says is a leader in the blade server segment—touts a solution called Remote Graphics Software for just this purpose. At least one specialty vendor (Teradici) markets dedicated silicon (for both thin clients and blade servers) that performs video compression and decompression in hardware. According to Haff, a number of blade vendors (including ClearCube, IBM, and Verari) plan to make use of Teradici’s product.

A decade ago, Ellison and other thin-client proponents pitched network computers as cost-efficient alternatives to full-blown PCs: do telemarketers or other task workers really need CISC microprocessor behemoths idling on their desktops? In addition, thin advocates argued, by centralizing management and administration on a single system, network computers could help tamp down escalating Windows support costs, too. These days, Haff and Illuminata say, potential adopters are still intrigued by thin’s pricing advantages—although an increasing number cite security-related concerns, too.

"Much of the time, we still see thin-client deployments driven by reasons beyond cost—improved security, in particular," he indicates.

In this respect, PC blades let organizations have their cake (highly manageable and secure desktops) and empower their users, too.

"With applications increasingly accessed over the network … there’s no longer that great a distinction between computing locally and computing over the network anyway," Haff concludes. "Add beefy servers, fat pipes, and concerns about PC security and management to the mix and you find more and more IT folks starting to ask ‘Why not thin clients?’"

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