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Thin Clients Target CAD Users

Engineers' need for speed and high-octane graphics have kept them on the sidelines of thin-client computing. Yet new technology advances are delivering the right dose of high-end horsepower from the data center to the desktop, prompting engineers to reevaluate the latest entrants in this category.

Industry sectors like financial services and mainstream departments outside of engineering and manufacturing have increasingly embraced thin clients as a way to consolidate computing horsepower back into the data center. While there are various iterations, a thin-client architecture generally employs a solid-state device on the desktop that connects over a network to a centralized server in the data center, which handles all processing and data storage. Some companies are driven to a thin-client architecture for security reasons, sold on the idea of keeping mission-critical business data safely tucked away in the IT-managed data center. Others see the architecture as a way to reduce cost of ownership related to administering a company-wide arsenal of full-blown PCs or as a stepping stone to reducing energy consumption and going green.

Despite the potential benefits, engineering departments have mostly thumbed their nose at having a stripped-down thin client on their desktop, turned off by previous generation's latency and performance issues when working with 3-D graphics and animations along with the inability to locally store CAD files and large models.

"CAD guys are maniacal about wanting their performance," says Bill Bosworth, senior director of ?Teamcenter marketing for Siemens PLM Software, who admits, however, that there is interest among the product development and design community for solutions that would lower the cost of ownership. "Typically when someone is working in a high-end model, they want interactivity, and the technology hasn't been there on the back end to maintain a high level of interactivity when you're pushing graphics triangles and screens across the wire."

Performance Gap Narrows

The gap in performance between workstation-class systems and so-called thin-client solutions is starting to close, however. Category leaders like Hewlett-Packard Co. and IBM have introduced new blade server technology and thin client offerings that up the ante in terms of delivering the computing power necessary to run CAD and simulation programs without much of the latency hangover of the older product lines. New companies like Teradici claim to push the envelope even further. Teradici's hardware-based PC-over-IP silicon solution, licensed by IBM, ClearCube and others, employs proprietary image compression capabilities to deliver a high-end graphics experience on a very thin desktop device, according to company officials.

"Thin clients have been around for nearly 10 years now in some fashion or another and they've only reached an 8 percent adoption rate in that timeframe," says Ziad Lamman, workstation product manager for Teradici. "The reason is they don't provide the same experience users are accustomed to on a local workstation. "

The Tera 1202 chip resides on the host platform, be it a workstation or blade server, and another Terra 1100 chip resides in the desk side "portal." The chips on each end implement advanced graphics compression algorithms, as well as I/O bridging of USB and audio, encapsulating the information, encrypting it for security and sending it as IP packages over the network. The display compression and ability to showcase images at the pixel level ensures the image on the client appears identical to the host image and leads to the improved graphics performance.

ClearCube, a Teradici OEM making centralized computing solutions, has typically not catered to the engineering market. Yet the addition of Teradici PC-over-IP technology changes the equation, giving it a stronger set of capabilities for this market segment, according to Mike Barron, ClearCube's director of product marketing. "PC-over-IP brings a new building block to the table," he says. "It gives a way to expand our product line and cover a section of the market that we weren't able to address well previously."

Traditionally, ClearCube's solutions fell short of the high-fidelity graphics capabilities required by engineers and CAD users, Barron says, and they also had distance limitations, requiring the users of the thin client to be physically located near the central blade server. ClearCube's new line of client-side iPorts with the Teradici technology address both of those shortfalls. The i9420 iPort, introduced last September, is a dual-screen client, while the i9440 iPort, introduced in June, is a quad-monitor offering.

IBM, also, has seen an uptick in interest in centralized computing solutions and thin clients among the engineering segment since the introduction of the HC10, its blade offering with the Teradici technology that is certified to run with many MCAD applications. "The value proposition is very compelling (to engineers) as a group. But it's not just a thin client solution, they need to have something to run in the data center and something to help manage it all," says Tim Dougherty, manager of strategy and planning for IBM BladeCenter.

HP is taking a different approach to improving graphics performance on its thin-client product line. HP's Remote Graphics Software, which resides on the centralized blade server in the data center and on the thin client, uses patented network display technology to allow users to remotely access and share a graphics workstation over a network. RGS sends high-speed, encrypted pixels over a LAN, WAN or VPN connection to any type of thin client or Windows-based PC or laptop. As part of its thin-client solution for CAD users, HP, in June, announced the HP Blade Workstation for MCAD, which delivers the features of a high-end workstation in a blade format, comes equipped with the RGS software and has been certified and tested with a number of the leading MCAD applications. The company's Flexible or Performance line of thin-client access devices also come with RGS, including the T5730 dual display model and the DC73 quad display model.

The main advantage of HP's software approach is flexibility, according to Dan Nordhues, HP's director of marketing for blade workstations and Remote Graphics Software. "The power of RGS is that anything you can sit down in front of and load software on can turn into a thin-client access device," Nordhues says.

Remaining concerns over latency and performance and cultural issues related to engineers not wanting to relinquish control could keep engineers and CAD users on the thin-client sidelines. "While the new technology advances the performance of this technology, it may not resonate with the hot shot senior engineers who will always want the big guns computer on their own desk," says Jon Peddie, president of graphics consultancy Jon Peddie Assoc.

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