Exclusive: HP wields blades to ease desktop management

Innovative Consolidated Client Infrastructure replaces desktop PCs with thin clients connected to blade servers

Probably no other task in IT generates as much frustration as supporting users' PCs. Many CTOs lament that despite outrageous maintenance costs, ensuring proper resilience and security for PC-based applications is often merely wishful thinking.

A sudden PC failure often causes a user to lose data and be unproductive for hours or even days while a replacement is found and properly configured. In case of loss or theft, companies that permit the storage of business data on desktops and laptops are also exposed to possible embarrassment, litigation, or worse from data disclosures.

Hewlett-Packard has unveiled a solution aimed at giving IT the upper hand in this struggle: CCI (Consolidated Client Infrastructure).

Virtualization is the essence of CCI. The solution removes PCs from users’ desktops and replaces them with thin clients that connect to centrally managed PC blade servers via TCP/IP. From these clients, users access virtual images of an OS and applications residing on the blades. The clients themselves are diskless, with just enough resources to attach basic peripherals such as a monitor, keyboard, and mouse.

During the test of a dedicated CCI setting, set up by HP, I had mostly positive experiences, both as an administrator and a user. As an admin, I discovered that the CCI approach to PC management is more efficient than any method I’ve tried. As a user, I often had to remind myself that the actual processing power and applications were located somewhere other than on my desk.

Some of the constraints built into the system and

a certain degree of complexity that goes into

creating a flexible virtual environment may render CCI inappropriate for some organizations. Further, the notion of a noncustom device that potentially fits any user may not be well-received by every employee. Nevertheless, most companies should be able to find a workable solution that improves data and applications manageability while adding much-needed resilience to users’ computing. For many companies, that should translate into significantly reduced administrative cost, a welcome by-product of virtualized desktops.

HP centers CCI around its recently announced bc1000 blade PC that mounts the 1GHz Efficeon TM8000 processor from Transmeta, a 40GB ATA drive, two Ethernet cards, and as much as 1GB of memory.

The bc1000 fits vertically in one of the slots of the HP e-Class Blade PC Enclosure, a separate component that has room for 20 blades and can optionally host as many as two Ethernet switches to simplify cable routing and administration.

On the end-user side, HP offers different T5000 thin-client models with a choice of CPU, local OS, and local ports to support users’ applications. Whichever client you choose, users’ OS and applications are not installed locally but on a blade PC.

My test bed also included a blade chassis with several slots filled with specialized servers offering services such as Microsoft Active Directory, IP load-balancing servers, and HP’s blade PC RDP (Rapid Deployment Package) management software. Other slots contained blade PCs with Microsoft Office and other typical user applications installed on top of Windows XP Professional.

The first step for an administrator is to prepare the bc1000 for use by installing the OS and end-user applications. This is a rather mundane task, but no different than setting up a desktop PC, with one interesting difference: Each blade will load a copy of a client management agent. In essence, that agent facilitates centralized administration of blade PCs using RDP.

RDP is an essential part of the CCI management arsenal. It offers the tools to manage many blade PCs with little effort. For instance, using RDP, an administrator can create an image from a working unit and later deploy the same image to a single target or in parallel to multiple blades.

Deploying the same image to another blade is a simple drag-and-drop procedure, although the GUI also helps you create scripts that selectively drive a new image to a blade, based on criteria such as the IP address, user, or computer name.

I tested CCI wearing my end-user hat on an already configured blade. If you are familiar with Windows RDC (Remote Desktop Connection), getting used to CCI-virtualized PCs should be painless. I started RDC on my thin client, then typed the IP address of my blade PC and my log-in info to access my applications remotely.

After creating a Word file on one client, I logged off, moved to another client, and logged in with the same credentials. As expected, I regained access to my file.

A parallel benefit: The local machine contains no data to be stolen, hence the damage caused by a theft is limited to the cost of the equipment.

Although Windows makes it possible to pursue the same objective of client independence with techniques such as roaming users’ profiles, the thin-client approach wins because of its simplicity and easy setup. Furthermore, users can access their data and applications from any computer with an RDC client. For example, with proper firewall settings and a decent connection, traveling users can easily access their virtual PC remotely from their laptops.

A comprehensive CCI configuration can include techniques to protect users from broken blades, such as adding a NAS device and redirecting users’ writes to network shares on that appliance. Setting up such a configuration should be easy using plain vanilla NAS appliances and creating proper user rules in Active Directory.

To test recovery, I began editing a Word document, then simulated a failure by cutting power to the blade PC without saving my work. My thin client displayed an error message warning that the connection with the blade was lost. I changed the IP address in RDC to point to a different blade; after I logged in, I was immediately able to access my virtual desktop and test documents, including the one open at the time of the crash. I did notice that the changes made since the last Word autosave were gone. Nevertheless, I had recovered in minutes, and with minimal data loss.

Having a user enter a new IP address during fail-over is a minor inconvenience, but it can be avoided completely if you install an application that provides automatic IP address fail-over, such as Big-IP from F5 Networks.

By the end of my evaluation, I had mostly positive remarks about CCI. However, XP-only support is a factor that could discourage potential users. The complexity of the setup, with its blend of Active Directory, NAS devices, IP load balancing, and blade administration servers could be another spoiler. Still, I would be hard-pressed to remove any of those components, as they all bring benefits to the solution.

Ultimately, the decision to embrace CCI depends on how much value the additional reliability and ability to better manage users’ applications brings to your company. HP estimates that the cost savings of CCI compared with the traditional approach can be substantial. But for many companies, the nonmonetary benefits alone can be a sufficient motivation to embrace virtualized desktops.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Value (10.0%)
Ease of use (15.0%)
Manageability (20.0%)
Scalability (20.0%)
Setup (20.0%)
Interoperability (15.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
HP Consolidated Client Infrastructure 8.0 9.0 8.0 9.0 9.0 8.0 8.6