NComputing M300

NComputing M300

Summary: NComputing's M300 thin client/virtual desktop infrastructure solution is straightforward to set up and manage, and also extremely cost-effective. Schools, small businesses or other budget-strapped organisations should consider putting spare desktop PCs or servers to work hosting this well-designed VDI system.

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Pros

  • Low-power, small-footprint client devices
  • Numo 2 SoC enables efficient HD video, audio and USB 2.0 peripheral support
  • Up to 45 clients supported per host PC/server
  • One LAN port connects three M300 clients
  • Straightforward installation and management via vSpace Server 6.6 virtualisation software

Cons

  • Non-IT professionals may find Windows licensing requirements confusing

Back in 2008, we reviewed virtual desktop infrastructure specialist NComputing's PCI-based X300, an entry-level thin-client solution that allows up to six extra Windows terminals to be run from a regular desktop PC or low-end server. The X300 has proved to be extremely successful where basic, low-power desktop computing is required for small workgroups — in education, training establishments and small businesses for example.

The successor to the X series is the new M300, which brings a new architecture and a new upper limit of 45 users per host PC (15 three-client M300 kits). We looked at a single £350 M300 kit attached to a 3GHz Core 2 Quad Q9650-based server with 4GB of RAM running NComputing's vSpace Server virtualisation software on Windows MultiPoint Server (MPS) 2011. Windows MPS is Microsoft's preferred option for the education sector; a second boot option, Windows Server 2008 R2, was also available on our testbed host PC.

Design
The M300 solution is built around NComputing's vSpace Server 6.6 software running on the host PC/server, and the Numo 2 ARM-based System-on-a-Chip (SoC) that services the client devices. The Numo 2 delivers efficient graphics and HD video processing, allowing more users to be supported per host system (up to 45, depending on host configuration) than with the X300 or the more recent LAN-based L300

The M300 kit comprises three client devices, one 'large' and two 'small'. The large client serves as a hub for the two small clients, connected via Cat 5/6 STP and USB A/B cables. Host/client communication is handled by NComputing's proprietary User eXtension Protocol (UXP) over an Ethernet connection to the LAN.

The 'large' M300 client hooks up to the LAN and serves as a hub for the two 'small' clients (see below)

The large client measures 160mm wide by 120mm deep by 35mm thick. At the back is the power input and Ethernet (RJ-45) connection for the trio of clients, along with USB keyboard and mouse ports and a 15-pin VGA connector. The front has status and activity LEDs, a USB 2.0 port for peripheral attachment (which can be disabled in the management console if necessary) and a pair of audio jacks. Each side of the large client has USB and RJ-45 ports for connecting up the small clients.

The 'small' M300 client has RJ-45 and USB connections to the 'large' client

The small clients measure 120mm wide by 99mm deep by 33mm thick and, apart from power and Ethernet, have the same connections as their bigger sibling. There's only one LED on the small client, which glows continually with a good connection to the large client.

The M300 clients have no moving parts, fans or local storage, and are therefore extremely low-power devices, drawing only a few watts each — NComputing claims around 2W per user.

ZDNet UK's test M300 setup, showing the server and the host session on the left, plus three attached M300 clients

Setup and administration
NComputing's vSpace Server 6.6 virtualisation software was installed on our relatively low-end Core 2 Quad Q9650 server running 64-bit Windows MultiPoint Server 2011. From here, the clients are administered via the vSpace Management Console, a password-protected utility that launches either from the Windows System Tray or via the Windows MPS 2011 MultiPoint Manager.

The vSpace Server Management Console gives administrators plenty of control over client configuration and user sessions

The vSpace console lets you define server groups (if multiple servers are present on the network) and set client connection options (automatic to server group, or manual to auto-discovered servers); you can also set the client video resolution (they must all be the same, but options range from 800 by 600 up to 1,440 by 900) and sleep-if-idle time, enable automatic logins for individual clients, set certain clients to run in 'kiosk' mode, select network options (DHCP or static IP address), choose a setup password and configure updates. Client configuration profiles can be saved for quick and easy application to new clients as they are connected.

The Login dialogue in vSpace Server Manager includes an option to set up clients in kiosk mode, running an administrator-selected application

Once set up, the M300 constellation is pretty straightforward to manage. Applications installed on the server are immediately available to all client devices – we successfully loaded programs as diverse as Passmark's Performance Test 7.0 benchmarking suite and Bits from Bytes' Axon 2 software for converting 3D models in STL format for output on a 3D printer. Administrators can view client sessions (this is configurable with or without user permission), and send messages, disconnect or stop client sessions as required.

Performance
We examined the M300's performance by installing Passmark's Performance Test 7.0 — a widely-used set of CPU, memory, graphics and disk benchmarks for Windows PCs — on the server, and running it on one, two and then three clients simultaneously. PT 7.0 gives the PC's subsystems a good workout, and so we expected to see performance degrade as more clients were added.

Performance Test 7.0 scores when running on 1, 2 and 3 M300 clients simultaneously: the host server had a 3GHz Core 2 Quad Q9650 processor, 4GB of RAM, integrated GeForce 7100/nForce 630i graphics and a 400GB Hitachi Deskstar hard drive spinning at 7,200rpm

Performance did indeed drop off as more clients ran the benchmark suite — particularly disk and CPU performance, as might be expected. Graphics performance held up particularly well thanks to the leg-up provided by the clients' Numo 2 processor. According to NComputing's guidelines, an entry-level host server such as our Core 2 Quad test rig would be expected to handle around 12 'high workload' or 20 'low workload' users.

Conclusion
NComputing's M300 thin client/virtual desktop solution is straightforward to set up and manage, and at around £350 for the vSpace 6.6 Server software and three client devices is also extremely cost-effective. Schools, small businesses or other budget-strapped organisations should consider putting the odd spare desktop PC or server to work hosting this well-designed solution.

Specifications

OS & software
Operating system vSpace Server 6.6
Video
GPU Numo 2
Connections
USB 1 x USB 2.0, 2 x USB (mouse/keyboard), USB A/B extension (2 on large client, 1 on each small client)
Other RJ-45 Direct Connect (2 on large client, 1 on each small client)
Networking
Ethernet 1 (on large client)
Audio
Audio connectors microphone, headphone
Miscellaneous
Accessories AC adapter
Processor & memory
Processor model Numo 2
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Prices

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Topics: Hardware, Reviews

About

Charles has been in tech publishing since the late 1980s, starting with Reed's Practical Computing, then moving to Ziff-Davis to help launch the UK version of PC Magazine in 1992. ZDNet came looking for a Reviews Editor in 2000, and he's been here ever since.

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