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ClearCube puts bells and whistles on blade PC

British back end

Imagine an IT staffer moving from desk to desk, installing a new bit of software to let users connect into the latest and greatest office printer. Picture the grizzled look on her face as minion X whines about flagging application Y or whirring desktop Z. Could this really happen?

Well. Yes. It happens every day, of course, but not so much in the world of PC blade computing where the nasty hardware is locked up in closet along with the administrators. ClearCube - the blade PC pioneer - has been pushing this somewhat successful notion of modern desktop computing for some time and has just released a new management package that puts old-style admining to shame. The company has also opened up a new office in the UK to serve a growing European business but more on that later.

First to the product.

ClearCube basically has a new take on thin client computing. Instead of having a full-on PC at their desks, users have a small device that ties their monitor and keyboard into a blade server back in the data center. Users typically have their own blade server but as many as four users can share a single system, which differs from the thin client model where many users share a single server.

Having all the PCs together in a server room means administrators can apply software upgrades and patches from a central location and not mess with individual trips to user machines. It also means that users don't have to deal with the loud hum of a PC at their desks.

But for all the benefits of PC blade computing, the idea is by no means mainstream. So to help its case and attract some new attention, ClearCube has put out the fourth generation of its management software.

The new software has some of the more sophisticated management tools around, including a set up that automatically picks a particular blade for particular users. The ClearCube Management Suite (CMS) software does this by tracking each person's software usage patterns. If you tend to rely on Word and Internet Explorer only, chances are that will place you on a standard one-processor Pentium 4 system. If, however, you are running PhotoShop or doing lots of complex spreadsheet work, CMS will go ahead and make sure you connect in to a powerful Xeon-based system.

Customers need to buy external storage to make all of this happen, since that ensures a user's information is not tied to a single blade. But Clear Cube has thought of a way to use the spare hard disks sitting on all of the blade PCs.

"Right now, there are about 3 terrabytes of unused space in a rack," said Ken Knotts, director of marketing at ClearCube. "We are making it possible to back up user data on that storage and put the information in multiple places so it can be retrieved if there is a failure."

Another part of the CMS package lets administrators perform basic functions such as checking on a CPU or fan in the PCs. As part of this monitoring software, ClearCube has made it possible for admins to write their own scripts and control when a blade PC is taken down. If a CPU starts to overheat, for example, a signal can be sent to back up the PC's information and then to shut down the user's system if need be. The user is then rebooted automatically on a spare blade PC.

The big boys in the PC and server markets have caught on to ClearCube's idea. Sun Microsystems, for example, has been selling thin clients for years and has provided no sign of pulling back this effort. More directly, HP entered the blade PC market earlier this year, and IBM works in tandem with ClearCube on sales.

ClearCube claims a load of intellectual property around its management software and says this should help fend off the big nasties. In our opinion, the bigger challenge is growing the market for blade PCs.

To nudge things along, ClearCube has opened an office in the UK with three sales and one support staff. The company has seen heavy interest in the UK, Germany, Spain and Sweden, Knotts said. ®

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