ClearCube PC Blade System review

Price when reviewed

The argument for thin clients over fat clients has always been their ability to reduce running costs and support demands. Centralising services and applications removes the need to place a PC on every desk. However, there are myriad environments where this isn’t practical. So ClearCube offers a smart halfway house that allows you to centralise PCs but provide full access to all your users.

ClearCube PC Blade System review

The PCs are held on removable sleds and all power and connectivity is handled by the chassis. However, ClearCube uses a unique communication method to deliver secure services to the desktop. Each user requires a compact C/Port module at their desk. This is linked to the chassis they use via a standard CAT-5/6 network cable with RJ-45 connectors. A key feature is that this doesn’t operate via a digital signal. Developed by ClearCube, it instead uses three wire pairs to transmit an analog RGB signal, while the fourth pair sends USB signals. It doesn’t introduce any latency and is virtually unhackable. A drawback is the maximum 200m connection length between chassis and C-Port module, although ClearCube does offer a fibre C/Port module, which supports distances up to 500m. An alternative is to use I/Port desktop modules, which support connections over TCP/IP. These are thin clients, and ClearCube offers three options: its own model or Neoware’s Capio One and E100 models. These run Windows XP Embedded along with ClearCube’s own software to create an IP connection with the PC blade.

The 3U chassis has room for eight single-processor blades and uses backpack units to provide a variety of client connections. Fitted at the rear of the chassis, the review system included the blade-switching backpack version, which offers eight C/Ports and eight I/Ports, plus remote network management facilities. A useful feature is the spare port. One local PC blade C/Port is connected to the spare port via a short network cable, which automatically designates it as a redundant unit. If a user’s current blade dies, you can remotely swap them over to the spare in a matter of seconds, allowing support staff to diagnose and fix the problem without affecting productivity.

The blades are, indeed, complete, self-contained PCs. At the front, you have the processor and two DIMM sockets populated with a total of 512MB of memory. Storage is handled by a single 80GB SATA hard disk. Bringing up the rear is the blade’s own power supply, with the chassis only effectively providing a passthrough power connection. Two graphics options are available. The blades are fitted as standard with an embedded Intel graphics chipset, but they also accept an add-on nVidia Quadro4 mezzanine card, which supports quadruple displays. Typical uses would be on a trading floor, where the user would have four screens in action, and this also requires an additional multivideo expander unit. ClearCube also offers dual Xeon blades, which come with up to two ATA hard disks, although these modules take up two bays in the chassis.

The Java-based Control Center provides remote access to the PC blades for viewing a full inventory and setting up alerting facilities. The latter uses a simple flowchart display, where you select the sensor to be watched, add a threshold and choose an action. This can be shutting down the PC blade, rebooting it or just sending an email. ClearCube’s Switch Manager provides full administrative access to the chassis and blades. Users can be swapped to the spare blade from here with just a couple of mouse clicks. A View mode lets you watch the action on selected blades, Control mode takes over the keyboard and mouse but leaves the user with video, and a KVM mode provides full remote-control facilities that lock the user out for the duration of the session.

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