For the better part of two years, blade computing has been making inroads at the server level thanks to companies such as Dell, Hewlett-Packard (HP), and IBM. Now HP is taking blade computing one step further and plans to bring the concept down to the level of the desktop.

HP plans to release a new computing technology that aims to reduce the amount of money schools and businesses spend to purchase and manage personal computers by providing infrastructure-wide processing power from a single, centralized location.

HP’s idea takes the concept of server blades–or single circuit boards populated with components such as processors, memory, and network connections that are usually found on multiple boards–and applies it to desktop computers. The resulting machines could save schools and businesses up to 45 percent on the total cost of owning and operating personal computers, HP executives told eSchool News.

PC blades mark a growing interest in centralized computing at HP, which–like other computer companies–recently has focused its development efforts on addressing the concept of total cost of ownership, or TCO. It’s a concept that aptly applies in the school arena, where tight budgets demand that administrators squeeze every last drop out of technology purchases.

Unlike traditional desktop machines, PC blades take the form of long, slender circuit boards, which allows them to be stored together on a rack in a central location, instead of individually on top of a desk or on the floor at the user’s feet. When a user logs onto a blade machine, the only components he or she must interact with are a monitor and keyboard.

HP believes the technology will enable its customers to stretch their IT dollars by reducing the amount of time and manpower it normally would take to repair, upgrade, and maintain large computer infrastructures, where hundreds or even thousands of machines are spread throughout several rooms in a single school or office building.

By deploying the machines in a single, centralized location, schools and businesses can save on the expensive and often labor-intensive process of keeping the computers up to speed, said Tad Bodeman, director of client consolidation solutions for HP’s Personal Systems Group.

The Consortium for School Networking, a nonprofit outfit that promotes the use of technology to improve K-12 education, estimates that initial hardware costs account for just 20 percent to 40 percent of a school’s TCO.

“Our customers are very clear with us that the purchase price of the PC is a very small component to actually owning that PC,” Bodeman said. “The fruit of squeezing that last nickel out of the purchase price has run its course.”

The technology is especially ripe for use in schools, executives contend, where a small group of IT staffers generally are responsible for a large number of computers housed in several different locations–from classrooms to libraries and administrative offices.

“The lack of IT support and resources available makes the technology very applicable in [schools],” Bodeman said.

Theoretically, PC blades could take a chunk out of initial hardware costs as well, by enabling customers to do more with less. The fact that each hard drive is stored in a central bank and is password-accessible across the entire network means that any user could log in from any terminal and pull up whatever documents or assignments he or she is working on at the time. Bodeman called the PC blade “an identity-free access device.”

The idea, according to Ron Eller, vice president of alliances and solutions for HP’s Enterprise Servers and Storage Group, is for customers to save money by not purchasing more machines than they actually need. In a typical office environment, he explained, at least 30 percent of the machines sit idle at any given time.

Unfortunately, Eller said, that same maxim might not apply as well to customers in the education space, many of whom can’t afford to be a few computers short when it comes to scheduling lessons in the computer lab or administering online testing.

Still, PC blades represent a potential coup for schools from a logistics standpoint, because they enable educators and students to move from classroom to classroom without having to worry about whether they will have access to the files stored on their system’s hard drive. Conceptually, this type of centralized computing is nothing new. PC blades bear resemblance to an older generation of machines called thin-client computers, which were intended to reduce hardware and management costs significantly but never really caught on widely in schools.

Part of the problem with thin-client machines, HP says, is that they do not run on the popular Microsoft Windows operating system, which has made them difficult to integrate into schools. Critics also have disparaged the devices for their limited memory and storage capacity.

So far, those barriers have elicited enough resistance from schools to force such companies as Sun Microsystems Inc. and Oracle Corp. to scale back a combined effort that originally sought to put a thin-client computer on every child’s desk by the year 2005.

Oracle Chief Executive Officer Larry Ellison was so committed to the idea three years ago that he created the New Internet Computer (NIC). This reduced-capacity computing device, which Oracle no longer is promoting to customers, ran on a Linux operating system and came equipped with just 64 megabytes of memory, a 56K modem, and a CD-ROM drive. It sold for only $199.

Ellison planned to market the machines through the New Internet Computer Co., a privately held firm that he helped finance. But after NICs failed to take off, Ellison abandoned the project. According to news reports, the company closed its doors officially in June.

HP doesn’t anticipate a similar fate for its technology. PC blades, it contends, are far evolved from their thin-client predecessors in both functionality and familiarity. The devices will operate with all the power and speed of a standard desktop PC and will run on a Microsoft platform, company officials say.

Where thin clients are concerned, “the barrier has always been to provide a familiar experience to the user sitting in front of the keyboard and screen,” Eller said. He believes HP has moved beyond those boundaries here.

HP isn’t alone in its quest to whittle down the TCO of its machines. According to Matt Stein, lead K-12 analyst at Massachusetts-based Eduventures Inc., PC blades are indicative of an industry-wide trend to reduce the costs associated with maintaining and upgrading aging systems.

Stein said big-name players such as Dell Inc. and IBM Corp. also have been building out their school-related services in renewed efforts to address such problems as the cost of memory storage and ongoing technical support.

As for PC blades, Stein foresees value down the road, but he said more imminent technology priorities–such as the data-warehousing and student tracking requirements leveled by the No Child Left Behind Act–probably will keep many schools from signing on, at least right away.

“In the short term, I think it will be very hard for schools to swallow a new way of looking at technology,” he said. “Right now, the majority of schools have their hands full.” Still, the potential is there, he added: “The value point for this type of service is definitely pretty clear as far as [TCO] goes.”

The idea that PC blades will enable schools to save money by cutting back on maintenance time theoretically means schools will have more technology dollars at their disposal to purchase additional hardware, Stein said–a benefit that bodes well for forward-thinking districts considering large-scale laptop rollouts and other one-to-one computing initiatives.

HP executives who spoke with eSchool News weren’t exactly sure when PC blades would be rolled out to school customers. But they said the company has been working with the idea for some time now, and customers should expect to see products based on the concept within the next several months.

Links:

Hewlett-Packard Co.
http://www.hp.com

Sun Microsystems Inc.
http://www.sun.com

Oracle Corp.
http://www.oracle.com

Eduventures Inc.
http://www.eduventures.com