Palo Alto, CA-based Hewlett-Packard Company (NYSE: HPQ) recently announced its plan to promote its new version of server-based computing. The solution offers enterprises with large numbers of fixed desktops a way to reduce IT costs. Costs are reduced by moving user data to a data center, the user’s actual desktop configuration to a rack-mounted Blade PC in a server farm, and replacing the desktop with an energy-efficient thin client of HP’s t5000 series. While this strategy promises to save enterprises money, it also might be a valuable boon to companies trying to improve their disaster recovery system–removing vulnerable desktop PCs from the infrastructure is one way to centralize disaster recovery.

CCI explained
HP calls its strategy Consolidated Client Infrastructure (CCI) using Desktop Virtualization, because to end users, the result still looks and feels like their own desktops, even though the components are spread between two networks and a thin client.

Jargon aside, the approach works this way: A large enterprise such as a hospital, bank system, or insurance company might easily employ 10,000 desktop users. However, if studies for that enterprise reveal that on average only 7,000 users log in during peak times, then why invest in 10,000 desktops?

Instead, save time and effort spent on maintenance and configuration by giving employees reasonably powerful, energy efficient thin clients. This solution, as you might guess, is best for users who don’t require mobile computers or extra powerful workstations. Call centers and billing and accounting departments, where static PCs are the norm, are good candidates for HP’s CCI solution.

In such a case, the low-power thin client would dynamically connect (in a minute or less, HP claims) to any of the 7,000 available Blade PCs (PCs on a card) rack mounted in servers. As in a multiuser, multitasking environment, the thin client employs terminal emulation software to send keystrokes and mouse movements to the application server. The server then returns an updated display to the thin client.

Each server-side Blade PC contains the basic PC configuration: an OS (HP recommends Microsoft Windows XP Professional), and whatever standard set of applications, patches, and drivers the enterprise requires. The Blade PC servers crunch the data, and perform load balancing and other server operations. The data itself is accessed from the data center, where it’s stored in a user’s individual account—a 2-GB partition, for example.

According to HP’s Blade PC fact sheet, this consolidated setup is somewhat different than dumb-terminal computing in a multiuser environment. One main difference between CCI and traditional server-based computing is that each user is logged into a separate Blade PC card. In a more traditional multiuser environment, the hardware is shared by all logged in users.

Another important difference lies in the thin client itself. Today’s individual computing environment often requires more power than a dumb terminal. Thin clients like the t5700 are actually pretty fat, and they’re not so dumb, either—in fact, they’re smarter than my five year-old Compaq laptop (Figure A). Using a thin client is a way to leverage the advantages of centralized server-based computing into a PC-based enterprise environment where dumb-terminals won’t cut it.

Figure A
In HP’s Consolidated Client Infrastructure strategy, the t5700 thin client rules the desktop.

The t5700 is powerful enough to run peripherals and process local data using either a 733-MHz or 1.0-GHz Efficeon TM5800 processor, which is an energy-efficient chip made by Santa Clara, CA-based Transmeta Corp.. This chip is a more powerful successor to Transmeta’s Crusoe. Like the Crusoe, Efficeon CPUs scale speed and energy consumption to demand. They do this by using a software layer to both perform the energy calculations and interpret Intel instructions into the Efficeon’s own simplified instruction set. Transmeta claims this system makes it possible to combine instructions and in general render processing more efficient per clock cycle.

In addition to a processor robust enough to power desktop demands, the t5700 includes an embedded version of Windows XP (with service pack 1), enough ports and memory to hook up a large array of peripherals, as needed: four USB ports, one serial and one parallel port; up to 512 MB of flash memory (256 MB standard) for storing drivers, updates, and apps on the thin client, and up to 512 MB DDR memory (256 MB standard) for local use. An ATI Rage video card with 8 MB of graphics memory will support monitors of up to 1280 x 1024 resolution at 32-bit color depth, or 1600 x 1200 resolution at 16-bit color depth.

Ironically, by configuring a thin client with a few add-ons, such as an optional PCI slot and a drive bay that can run a CD player, hard drive, and other peripherals, you can turn your thin client into a decent desktop PC if you need to. The t5700s are sold with a keyboard and mouse. Monitors, however, need to be purchased separately.

Cost savings
HP estimates that a thin client will typically burn only 40W per hour, while the server energy consumed by each Blade PC adds up to another 25W. Compared to a desktop’s average of 140W, CCI could save as much as 75W per computer. These estimates don’t include the energy burned in the data center.

Other savings that could accrue from an enterprise using CCI include the cost reduction for 3,000 less Windows XP Pro licenses and maintenance subscriptions (down from 10,000 desktops to 7,000 Blade PCs in the scenario given above).

More savings could result by reducing configuration times and desktop replacement times, as well as worker downtime. HP’s thin clients ought to require less servicing, as they contain no moving parts. Since they have no individual configuration, replacing a t5700 is as simple as plugging in a new unit.

Replacement Blade PC cards, on the other hand, need to be configured. But centralized maintenance should make it possible to image a new card and pop it in the rack in less than an hour (providing spares are on hand). The management software will then add the card to the pool.

Should a Blade PC crash while a user is logged on, the server will dynamically allocate another card to the affected user. Logging in should take no more than another minute or two. It’s unclear how the user’s data would be affected. It may be lost, since the OS in the newly assigned Blade PC would not have a log of the user’s last operations. However, the fact that both Blades and data are centrally located in networked servers should ease PC configuration and management, as well as virus scanning, backup and recovery.

HP’s CCI fact sheet takes the position that a large-scale enterprise could install a CCI system for 10,000 users for $1500 per seat or less, 50 percent less than the cost of installing desktops (this estimate doesn’t appear to include the cost of monitors). Such a system would use the following configuration:

  • Approximately 7,000 Blade PCs per 10,000 users
  • 1 Windows XP Pro License per Blade
  • ProLiant BL e-Class Blade 3U rack-optimized enclosure with Rapid Deployment Pack V1.1 (includes a 3 year warranty)
  • ProLiant BL e-Class C-GbE Interconnect Switches with Integrated Administrator
  • 10642 (42U) Rack.
  • Power Distribution Units
  • Dynamic allocation engines (SW and HW) for end user-to-blade assignment
  • HP Compaq Thin Clients t5700 (one per user)
  • HP StorageWorks NAS 1000s Model 1 TB (2 Gigabit of space per end user)
  • Implementation services, ongoing support contract, and end user orientation training.

Other factors
In HP’s December 4 announcement, Jeff Groudan, vice president of business desktop marketing, explained that companies spend nearly $8,000 to maintain a desktop PC throughout its life. He said that using CCI could cut PC lifecycle support to $4,000, and save another $1,200 in support costs per user per year.

It’s important to point out that many factors influence total cost of ownership (TCO) of a product, including utility costs, local salaries, rent, and user training. As the first Blade PC cards are expected to be available in March, it’s too early to tell exactly how well the Blade system will work or how much it will reduce TCO.

Nevertheless, if the HP solution performs well, it does seem likely that significant savings could result for companies employing large numbers of static desktops. Like other hardware consolidation strategies, including the creation of large numbers of virtual servers using products such as VMware, CCI is a strategy worth investigating.