Product Review: ClearCube arms desktop-client revolution

Product Review: ClearCube arms desktop-client revolution

ClearCube Inc.'s PC Blade solution and its accompanying management software aim to please both users and IT administrators. While maintaining the user's usual desktop environment, ClearCube gives administrators far more manageability, security, and flexibility than do straight desktop computing or traditional thin-client computing.

Control is at the center of a never-ending tug of war between users and desktop administrators. Users instinctively want total control of their desktops, believing only they are qualified to configure their most productive work environment. IT administrators long for the days of thin client, mainframe-style computing when they had total control over everyone's desktop, because only they know how to run a safe, productive working environment. ClearCube Inc.'s PC Blade solution and its accompanying management software aim to please both users and IT administrators. While maintaining the user's usual desktop environment, ClearCube gives administrators far more manageability, security, and flexibility than do straight desktop computing or traditional thin-client computing.

ClearCube is a rack-based PC client system built around blades. The design allows desktop administrators to quickly and easily replace existing desktop computers with the ClearCube infrastructure by placing C/Port desktop converters near a power source and an Ethernet jack. The C/Port provides an RJ-45 port, the usual KVM connections, audio and microphone jacks, and two USB 1.1 ports (2.0 is on the way).

RJ-45 in the standard C/Port is dedicated to KVM communications between the C/Port and its corresponding blade. Although this is done over Cat 5e (or better) cabling, it's not Ethernet; all LAN communications occur off the blade. ClearCube recently released a KVM-over-Ethernet version of the C/Port, called the I/Port, allowing ClearCube users to run KVM signals over their existing LAN infrastructure. ClearCube claims no significant performance impact in this configuration, though we weren't able to test an I/Port to verify that assertion.

One might anticipate a delayed response time from a few hundred users with their KVM signals transmitted back and forth across a Cat 5e cable connection, but performance even under load was excellent. If you didn't know you were using a centralized system, you wouldn't be able to tell.

On the back end, ClearCube is distributed in 3U ClearCube Cages, each of which holds eight PC Blades. Generally, one blade corresponds to one C/Port, though you can play with that ratio. ClearCube's blades are evolving to keep up with the Wintel performance curve, but the ones we tested came with 2GHz Pentium CPUs, 128MB of RAM, and a 10GB IDE hard disk. ClearCube has since upgraded its basic blade configuration.

Each ClearCube Cage contains slots for the aforementioned eight blades as well as a Blade Switching BackPack, which is a modular unit containing all required connections to the outside network for that cage. A Remote Management Card functions as the switching engine hardware within the ClearCube system.

The ClearCube Management System makes the system tick for users and especially administrators. This suite of software tools includes the ClearCube Blade Manager, Switch Manager, DataFailover, MoveManager, the LANDesk Management suite, and the PowerQuest Corp. DeployCenter application. Those last two are third-party applications included to round out overall system functionality. Resellers can incorporate other applications into this suite as needed.

This system simply rocked our world. It's systems-management utopia. Where simply finding trouble is a problem in a desktop-oriented network environment, the management software automatically tracks and exposes any error on any blade right down to granular details such as fan speed or power supply voltages. Each blade can be remotely woken up, rebooted, or shut down, and because each blade has a front-panel LED, you can even program custom IDs to read out for organization purposes.

Administrators can instantly build a number of important logs, but the biggies are hyperaccurate hardware and software inventories with associated error or problem logs. Users can be restricted from attaching external mass storage devices to the C/Ports and the system will also log any new software or hardware installations on individual C/Ports as well. Future C/Ports will allow administrators to disable the USB ports on individual or all C/Ports. You can manage up to 250 users using only a browser-based interface; for larger installations, you'll need to invest in the CMS (ClearCube's Management System) Console application.

We loved the DataFailover and MoveManager parts of the CMS suite. If a blade goes bad, MoveManager swaps a user to a new blade in minutes. If a user moves to a new floor or building, the same task is accomplished in a similar amount of time. Simply point MoveManager at the blade contents that need to be moved and then at their new destination blade; the system does a complete disk image move then and there.

Data FailOver is MoveManager's kindred spirit. This application reserves a portion of every user's unused hard disk space in order to provide backup space for the entire rack's primary data. As users need more of their hard disks, Data FailOver automatically provides extra space, or administrators can manually choose specific blades to use as backup or even point the system at another network destination for backup purposes. Creating a highly functional hierarchical storage system becomes child's play with ClearCube -- as long as you've got a NAS or tape backup library already configured elsewhere on the network.

ClearCube's PC Blade solution encompasses a desktop revolution. The system delivers server-style uptime to any desktop environment, enabling admins to set up new users or change existing user parameters in just minutes without ever needing to leave a datacenter. And if that isn't enough, ClearCube is working on applications to maximize ROI by enabling blades to run in more than one operating environment on a scheduled basis. The company is even talking about grid-computing apps

Although the combination of C/Port and rack requirements does average out to a higher per-seat cost than the typical Dell desktop solution, the two are surprisingly close. And the savings that larger installations can incur -- from personnel, downtime, and security -- easily make up for this difference and more. -- InfoWorld (US)

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