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Norad Turns To PC Blades For Security And Savings

The introduction of hundreds of PC blades at the North American Aerospace Defense Command's Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station has produced savings of about $1.6 million a year.
Members of the missile defense headquarters of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, located a third of mile deep within the granite mountainside near Colorado Springs, have found that PC blades can provide high security and an economical advantage.

Over the past three years, about 500 PC blades have been installed at the Norad's Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station, says Garland Garcia, network chief. Most recently, the command center was converted.

Garcia says Norad has decided to use the blades, which are generally considered "dumb" terminals with keyboard, video, mouse, and no removable storage, for a variety of reasons. Those include security gained from removing hard drives and disk drives from individual user access. But perhaps more important, he says, are improvements gained through reductions in space, heat, and noise.

A user in the command center at the station may be required to operate with as many as five different PC networks to collect and disseminate information for both U.S. and Canadian defense intelligence, and through both classified and unclassified communication lines. Having five different PC desktop boxes, with associated fans and heat, placed at every work area was not only uncomfortable but could also lead to damage to equipment inadvertently kicked or otherwise shuffled around a work area, Garcia says.

Norad has been working closely with ClearCube Technology to find an alternative. ClearCube is a leading provider of PC blades, a technology that is expected to grow fairly rapidly in the coming years, according to Roger Kay, an analyst with IDC. "If you look at blade solutions, they really appeal to companies, or enterprises like the military, that have high densities of clients that are security conscious and require high availability," Kay says.

Kay estimates 130,000 PC blades were shipped last year, but that number is expected to grow to 620,000 this year, and to nearly 7 million by the end of the decade.

For Garcia, he was able to displace five separate desktop systems for workers in the command center, and replace the associated boxes and cabling with five user ports, each about the size of a VHS recording tape, and a single keyboard, video, and mouse connector. The actual PC blades were placed in a specially designed blade closet located near the command center but removed far enough from the floor so that overall cooling requirements in the work area could be significantly reduced, Garcia says.

IDC estimates that at an investment of about $800 per user, the station has been able to experience annual savings and productivity benefits of about $3,100 per user, and overall sayings of about $1.6 million a year, Kay says.

In addition to reductions in heat, noise, and clutter, the PC blades help improve security and reliability in the user environments, Garcia says. "If a user can touch it, there is a possibility they can break it," he says. "We also do not have to worry about the equipment [and information inside] growing legs."

For users that do have clearance or requirements for a removable media on the desktop, such options can be added, Garcia says.

The use of PC blades in the command center has allowed the Cheyenne station to complete a redesign with new acoustical capabilities. In a potential high threat situation, operators in the center will now be able to talk in normal voices to technicians across the room and be heard without interference from associated equipment noise.

In the command center, Garcia has been able to remove about 80 machines from the floor. The recent redesign of the command center is part of about $5 million in infrastructure upgrades that have been completed at the mountain over the past three years. In all, there have been about 500 PC blades placed within the mountain, with more installations planned.

Says Garcia: "I see blade technology as the direction the entire mountain will achieve in the next four to five years."