Each year, the IT department at Hill Air Force Base near Ogden, Utah, replaces one third of its PCs with new models. But Capt. Timothy Ohrenberger, CIO at the base and Information Services Flight Commander at Hill AFB Clinic, wanted to look at secure alternatives to PCs that would require less staff time to install and support.

He’d considered thin clients in the past, but they couldn’t run the software required by the base’s medical facility. Then he heard about a hybrid option from ClearCube Technologies, Inc. that provides a fully functioning Pentium PC and hard drive mounted on a blade that resides in the server room. End users have access to any PC applications they may need, but the boxes on their desktops have been replaced by much smaller C/Ports to connect their monitors, mice, and keyboards with their PC blades.

Although the ClearCubes cost more initially, he saw a potential for payoff down the road. “What caught my attention, was the reduction in manpower required to support the environment,” Ohrenberger said.

Implementation is expected to save more than $250,000 annually in system maintenance costs with the estimate based on a plan to replace just one third of the desktops in the unit.

Streamlined installation
With permission from the Air Force, Ohrenberger began a trail of ClearCube in May 2002. Ohrenberger chose to install the pilot system on a network in an annex of the base medical clinic. A ClearCube system has four components:

  • CPU blade: A Pentium-based computer with a hard drive
  • Cage: A housing for up to eight CPU blades
  • C/Port: A device at the user’s desk that provides connections for the monitor, keyboard, mouse, and other peripherals
  • Management software: Hardware management tools and applications that take advantage of the centralized system architecture

Ohrenberger, his staff, and representatives from ClearCube installed 44 PC blades in six racks—enough for the unit’s 42 users, plus two spares. The team assembled the cabinets and blades in less than 40 minutes. The next day, the team cloned all 44 blades in less than nine minutes. Ohrenberger estimates that the cloning process would have taken three hours and 40 minutes with conventional PCs. As a result, he believes the ClearCubes reduced time spent on cloning by 96 percent.

When the team members removed the old PCs from desktops and brought in the C/Ports, they discovered another installation step that takes less time to complete with ClearCubes. The staff spent about 11 minutes installing and configuring each ClearCube desktop, vs. 28 minutes for each desktop PC.

A ClearCube blade contains a CPU and hard drive.

Timely service and daily backups provide benefits
When he analyzed some common support tasks, Ohrenberger found that his team and end users could save time using ClearCubes rather than PCs. For example, a technician could remotely clone a blade in nine minutes, instead of spending 43 minutes to bring a desktop PC to the cloning station, perform the operation, and hook it up again. “It saves a lot of desk-diving,” Ohrenberger said. The shorter downtimes help the end users get back to work more quickly.

Behind the scenes, the system also helps users by backing up files. Although all users can keep documents on a file server, Ohrenberger says many PC users often keep files on their hard drives. “With a ClearCube, we typically snapshot each one of the blades and store it on another blade, so it inherently has its own backup area,” Ohrenberger said. They simply partition the 20-gigabyte drives into partitions of 10, and back up one user’s active partition onto another’s second partition once a day.

Capt. Ohrenberger and a staff member prepare to place a blade in the rack.

Military and medical security receive a boost
For any military base, security is a top concern. Plus, Ohrenberger’s IT department also needs to ensure the security of patient records to comply with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

Ohrenberger said having the blades housed in a closet behind a locked door, rather than out on the desktop, provides big security advantages. For example, no one can come in and walk out with a PC. “Additionally, if my PC is just sitting out there, you can walk up and throw a floppy disk or writable CD in it and just start copying information,” Ohrenberger said. “But, because you can add or subtract peripherals like 3.5-inch and CD drives, ClearCube users who don’t really need the devices don’t have them installed, closing those points of access.”

In addition, a ClearCube environment helps protect the network. An intruder could bring a laptop into a building, hook into an Ethernet port, and easily begin reading network traffic. “In the ClearCube environment, the connection that’s on the wall plate is just a video signal, so if you connect a laptop or another computer to it, it’s not seeing information, just a video signal that it can’t interpret,” Ohrenberger said.

However, Ohrenberger noted one security concern that came up during installation. ClearCube Console Manager software requires the server blade to run Microsoft Internet Information Server (IIS). Managers at the base generally discourage the use of Microsoft IIS from inside the firewall because it requires careful monitoring and frequent updates to keep it secure, but they gave the go ahead for this trial.

User reactions are mixed
Although the support and security advantages were clear to the IT department early in the pilot program, some users were skeptical of having their PC boxes replaced by C/Ports the size of videocassettes. In particular, some didn’t want to give up their 3.5-inch diskette or CD-ROM drives, but Ohrenberger said many came to realize that they didn’t really need the devices. For example, none of the ClearCubes in patient treatment rooms needed an external drive. And the people at the cramped front desk especially liked the smaller footprint of the ClearCube. Only about 15 diskette and 15 CD-ROM drives are deployed now, mainly in administrators’ offices.

Users also liked that the C/Ports are quieter because they generate significantly less heat than PCs, which require fan cooling.

Estimated costs and savings
ClearCube blades cost significantly more initially compared to most traditional desktop units. Ohrenberger’s estimate for the cost of the project included these line items for each new user:

  • $1,042—1.66 gigahertz Pentium 4 blade, with 256 megabytes of RAM, a 20-gigabyte hard drive, 32-megabyte video card, and Microsoft Windows license
  • $277—C/Port
  • $115—ClearCube management software with console switch

Other costs included:

  • $9,480 for the six R series cages with BackPack switches for Ethernet connections
  • $2,880 for six remote management cards. The cages and cards each handle eight blades.

But Ohrenberger found that the ClearCube system offers long-term savings compared with conventional desktops —especially if the department used keyboard, mice, monitors, and Windows 2000 licenses that it already owned. He calculated how much his department would save if he replaced one third of his 435 PCs with the ClearCubes.

“Total life-cycle savings after three years turned out to be about a half million dollars each year, for a total of about a million and a half.”  The greatest savings came reducing the time technicians would have to spend maintaining the systems, which Ohrenberger estimated to be worth about $330,000 per year. Less power consumption would save another  $28,800 annually and streamlined asset management would save about  $33,000 annually.

 A central office in Texas must approve all Air Force Medical Service IT procurement so Ohrenberger hasn’t yet received the okay to roll out ClearCubes throughout his department. But his pilot project with ClearCubes has already convinced him to recommend that the Air Force Medical Support Agency allow other CIOs to consider a racked PC solution to replace older desktop models.