May 5, 2003 4:00 AM PDT

HP tinkering with 'blade' desktops

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Hewlett-Packard is designing a "bladed" desktop system that will take PCs off desks and put them in the computer room.

Bladed desktop systems seek to combine the benefits of centrally managed computing systems with the familiarity of PCs. In these systems, corporate employees have only a keyboard, a monitor and a docking station on their desks. Their computers, meanwhile, are sandwiched in 6-foot-tall racks in central computing rooms that are managed by information technology administrators.

The benefits, advocates say, largely revolve around easier management. If a computer fails or needs new software patches, an administrator can fix it without leaving the office. Moving employees from one location to another or replacing a PC requires just switching around a few cables. Software management tools also let administrators dedicate spare disk space on different desktops to back up data on others.

Blades "lower manageability costs," said Bob Sutherland, an analyst at Technology Business Research. They make it "easier (on administrators) when a system goes down to get it up and running again." The overall customer base, however, is likely to be small.

At the same time, these bladed computers are full-fledged PCs with hard drives, processors and memory. By contrast, thin clients do not have hard drives and do little independent processing, relying on servers and storage systems for these tasks.

HP did not return calls to comment on this initiative. Sources close to the company, however, said HP is designing a blade desktop system that may come out commercially within a year.

Next week, HP CEO Carly Fiorina and other executives will sketch out the company's strategy for gaining more enterprise customers such as large corporations, universities and government agencies. While these are the target customers for bladed PCs, it is not clear if HP will discuss a blade strategy for desktops at the event.

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While HP, Dell Computer, IBM and others have been touting bladed servers for more than two years, no multinational company has yet to announce a blade system for desktops. So far, the market has largely been defined by Austin, Texas-based start-up ClearCube.

Although sales remain relatively small, several high-profile customers are testing out or installing ClearCube's PCs, including the North American Aerospace Defense Command and various financial services companies.

A blade system for PCs "is a very interesting concept. It makes a lot of sense for call centers," said Andy Neff, an analyst at Bear Stearns. Neff, however, said the ultimate sales potential is unclear.

 

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