Dec 31 2009

Form Factor

Blade PCs improve security and simplify management, while modular PCs let users easily make their desktop systems mobile.

PCs keep changing shape and form to meet changing user needs.

The latest innovations are blade PCs, which house the processing components not on a desk but in the server room, and modular PCs, which pack the entire computer into small cases that users can pop into any form factor they like — desktop, notebook, even a wearable PC.

Because blade PCs centralize the processing guts in one location, typically a data center, the technology can ease security management and speed troubleshooting, which in turn reduces downtime and boosts productivity. The technology, championed by ClearCube of Austin, Texas, and Hewlett-Packard of Palo Alto, Calif., can save a 100-user organization $35,120 annually in desktop management costs and about $2 million annually for a 5,720-user organization, according to analyst firm IDC.

Modular PCs, built by MCC Computer of Houston, give users the flexibility of multiple form factors. If employees need to travel, they can take the computer from the desktop, convert it to a notebook and they're good to go. Because it's the same computer, there's no fussing with transferring files from one device to another.

Both technologies are seeping into the government. The Air Force has implemented blade PCs at numerous bases, including Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. Meanwhile, the Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, N.C., has bought modular PCs for its troops.

Blade PCs

Blade PCs offer a hybrid approach to the more traditional PC architecture. In a typical configuration, the computer processing, memory and storage reside at the desktop; and for thin-client architectures, all share space on central servers. But with blade PCs, each user taps into files from a desktop device linked to the processing, memory and storage built on a small form factor known as a blade; the blades reside in racks in the server room.

Ken Knotts, a ClearCube senior technologist and communications director, says four components comprise a blade PC setup:

  • The blades themselves, which feature all the standard PC parts, such as processors, memory, hard drives, and video cards;
  • A chassis, which houses eight blades, cooling fans, power supplies and a networking infrastructure;
  • A user port, a paperback-sized device that sits on a user's desk, connecting a monitor, keyboard and mouse to the blade PC;
  • Software for managing, troubleshooting and monitoring the health of the blades.

The technology's biggest benefit is security, says Roger Chilcott, who manages information technology for the Operational Flight Program Combined Test Force at Eglin Air Force Base. Because blades are stored centrally, the risk of data theft is reduced significantly, he says. Although the user ports feature USB ports to let users connect CD or USB flash drives, Chilcott blocks that feature to prevent users from downloading sensitive data or uploading potentially harmful software.

Two years ago, he replaced the computers for 13 data analysts who required six desktop systems each. The blades perform as well as any desktop PC, he says. Even though users access blades over a fiber-optic network, there's no performance degradation.

If blades fail, IT administrators can use ClearCube's Sentral 5.0 management software to remotely move users to spare blades within minutes. To quicken the restoration process and back up data, Chilcott — a senior network engineer for Sentel of Alexandria, Va. — is building storage subsystems of redundant arrays of independent disks and that use a portion of each user's hard drive.

Modular PCs

The value proposition for modular PCs is simple: Buy one computer and you can use it as your desktop, notebook and handheld computer, which is especially beneficial to the military, says Bill Gibbs, vice president of marketing and sales for MCC Computer.

The computer is packed in a small, waterproof, aluminum case that's 5 inches long, 3 inches wide and 3/4-inch thick. The device — which houses a 1-gigahertz processor, 512 megabytes of memory and at minimum a 20-gigabyte hard drive — runs Windows XP Professional.

MCC currently offers five modules, or form factors, that the computers plug into. Besides desktop, notebook and microtablet modules, the company offers a wearable PC and a dashboard docking station for vehicles.

The desk module features a docking station that supports a monitor, keyboard and other peripherals. For mobile users, the micro tablet module features a rugged exterior, a 6.3-inch touch screen with handwriting recognition and an on-screen keyboard. The wearable module offers similar specs, but is connected to a belt that a user can strap on around the waist. Each module supports wired and wireless Internet access.

Gibbs says the Army has delivered several hundred modular PCs to Special Operations troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. The idea is that soldiers will use micro tablet modules when they're deployed and desktop modules when they return to their bases.

The troops like the micro tablet modules because they offer full-featured operating systems, Gibbs says. Regular notebooks are too bulky to use on missions and personal digital assistants with stripped-down operating systems can't handle the military's special applications, he says.

"When soldiers are planning a mission, doing reconnaissance work or surveillance tracking the bad guys and have to leave their vehicle or aircraft, they can pull the CPU out of the tablet, throw the tablet in a pile and put the CPU in their pocket. When they're back in the barracks or office, they can hook it back to a tablet or desktop dock and access the information," Gibbs says. "They like the portability, mobility and security of having their data with them at all times."

New Aims

As the government tries to be more mobile and more secure, these new form factors — modular and blade PCs — can help, Chilcott, Gibbs and Knotts note. As Chilcott puts it: "It takes awhile for users to get used to not having PCs around their knees, but that saves space," and then they're happy.