HP must be getting something right with its blade PC-based solution. Despite the way that HP's approach seems to go the opposite direction to the way that client-side computing trends are heading, the company is today launching its third generation of the architecture; a sign that it's probably getting traction in the marketplace (otherwise, it probably would have been scuttled by now).According to Tate Davis, HP's marketing manager for the blade PC solution, the new generation is marked by three primary improvements. The single and dual core versions of the blade PC hardware -- now called the BC2000 and the BC 2500 -- have been given a horsepower boost with the AMD Athlon 64 2100+ and AMD Athlon 64 X2 3000+ processors respectively. That boost in horsepower is no doubt designed to work in tandem with a new blade-to-thin client protocol that HP is offering in an effort to provide a richer and better performing multimedia experience than the older blade hardware coupled with RDP (the Remote Desktop Protocol; a protocol that's not as well equipped to support audio and video).The hardware is also tagged as "Vista-ready" by HP.
As you'll see in my video interview with HP's Davis where we mapped-out the architecture -- officially referred to as the Consolidated Client Infrastructure (CCI) -- on a whiteboard, HP takes a rather novel approach to the network-based centralization of desktop computing. Perhaps the most common approach to this mainframe-like architecture (where all desktop software -- the operating system, the applications, etc. -- is executed in a cenral location rather than on the end-users desktop) is one the taken by Citrix where there's one server with a lot of resources that through software, are essentially carved up into a bunch of virtual machines each of which is remotely accessible from a thin client sitting on someone's desk.
But citing the burstiness of the demands that clients place on their PCs, HP's Davis says his company sees that as a less predicatable environment in terms of performance than the one where each user has an individual blade PC dedicated to their user experience. Architecturally, the solution's lay out is pretty simple. On the desktop is a low cost thin-client PC with a keyboard and monitor. A user can walk up to any one of these thin clients (it doesn't have to be the one that's on their desk), log in, and then a separate system known as the Session Allocation Manager (SAM) will, based on the identity of the user, select the appropriate blade PC to connect that user to. For example (as shown in the video), whereas a sales person may only need the performance of a single-core blade, maybe someone in finance needs the power of a dual-core system.
But even the blades aren't dedicated to users since they don't have anything that's user-specific (eg: user preferences, My Documents, etc.) on them. All of those applications and data are kept in centralized storage. So, the round trip looks something like this: A user logs into any thin client, the SAM allocates a blade to that user and then tells the blade where in central storage to find that user's data and applications. Once a blade is married to a users' data and apps, the blade is essentially imitating what the user would have if they had a dedicated desktop and that experience is relayed back to the thin client.
For certain types of companies -- for example telemarketing companies -- HP's approach means they don't have keep as many blades as they have employees in their 19 inch racks. They only need as many blades as they have employees working at any one time plus a few hot spares. That's another advantage of the blade architecture: if your "PC" fails (which of course, they're known to do), the SAM can route a user to a functioning blade and a technician can go into the server closet, identify the failed blade, yank it out (without turning anything off) and insert a replacement.
On the downside, the acquisition cost of the total solution is higher than simply putting a PC on someone's desk. But Davis says that over the long-run, companies could end up saving money through gains in efficiency -- particularly in the typical cost of recovering from a desktop failure. Off-camera, Davis told me there's also a software-client that can emulate the hardware based thin clients for people who might need something more flexible (for example, notebook users). But, for notebook users, HP unfortunately doesn't offer any managed synchronization tools for synching up a users centralized data with their notebook.