NComputing`s X Series Combines Low Cost with Virtualized Thin Client ComputingBy Frank Ohlhorst | Print
NComputing looks to turn one PC into many with its latest X series technology, which straddles the line between thin client and remote virtual desktop solutions.
Businesses of all sizes are looking to squeeze the most value out of the typical desktop PC, but the question remains, how low can you go? While some businesses may choose to go as low-end as possible to shave a few bucks off a PC, Ncomputing is offering a different way to maximize value. The company has launched its latest in PC-sharing technology, the X series, which allows many users to share a PC, for as little as $70 per seat.
Of course, PC sharing solutions have been around for some time and the basic concept harkens back to the days of mainframes, where multiplexers allowed terminals to share CPU access. Even so, Ncomputing’s X series is a lot more than just teaching a new dog an old trick; the product comes in two versions – the X350, which allows four users to share a PC, and the X550, which maxes out at 11 users.
We took a look at the X350, which has a street price of about $225. The X350 kit consists of a PCI card with three ports and three access devices. The access devices connect back to the PCI card via CAT 6 cables. The maximum distance between the X350 host card and an access device is 10 meters. Installers will need to connect a Display (1280x1024 or 1440x900 resolution), keyboard and mouse to the access device to finalize the terminal setup. It’s worth noting that the access devices are powered by the CAT 6 cable and use less than 1 watt of electricity.
The product works by creating virtual PCs on the host system and then delivering those virtual PC sessions down to users via the access devices. While the concept of accessing a virtual PC is not new, Ncomputing takes it one step further by replacing the client PC with an inexpensive access device.
Ncomputing’s desktop virtualization software, Vspace, is the heart of the package and is responsible for creating and managing virtual PCs on the host system. Ncomputing advertises that the product works with Windows and Linux, yet makes it difficult to figure out exactly which versions of Windows or Distributions of Linux. The included manual and quick start guide indicate that there is support for 32-bit versions of Windows XP, but Vista support is not mentioned anywhere in the included documentation; neither is Linux. The company provides a "product selection guide," which, does not list the X300, nor does it mention anything about host PC requirements, other than CPU speeds, RAM and open PCI slots.
We tested the X350 on a few different host systems and could only get it to work on a host that was running Windows XP SP2; our Vista (both 32 bit and 64 bit) systems could not install the Vspace software. On those systems, the installation program came back with a terse warning that Vspace only works with Windows 2000 and Windows XP. Ncomputing ought to consider mentioning that limitation on its Website and on the product packaging. The company claims that support for Windows Server 2008 and Windows Vista will be coming in the near future.
Our test system was a custom white box unit (for configuration details, click here), on which we installed Windows XP. The actual installation of the hardware was very easy, and the Vspace software installation was quick and easy as well, although – with the previous model, the X300, it was required to input serial numbers and activation codes to achieve full functionality, the X350 reduces the hassle somewhat, but until the product is registered, sessions will be limited to 60 minutes.
The remainder of setup chores consisted of creating user accounts, setting up access, tweaking minor settings and installing any needed updates. Once set up, the product pretty much worked as advertised. The user experience on the host PC was only impacted minimally, while each of the access device users was provided with enough processing power to run most standard business applications and some multimedia applications.
Users will notice a rapid drop off in performance as loads increase – in other words, don’t expect every user to be able to run a demanding application at the same time.
Management of the product is simple and is accomplished using a software console found under the Vspace software menu. Here, administrators can change some of the basic settings, such as display resolution and automatic logon, as well as keep track of access to the system. The products management capabilities do not approach what one would get with a typical client/server setup, but it is adequate enough for taking care of the needs of a few users in a small office or classroom. Resellers will find the product's primary merits consist of ease of use and low-cost user access. On the downside, the product is very limited and can only accomplish so much, such as supporting the basic goals of allowing multiple users to share a single PC.
Ncomputing could take the solution a great deal further with some enhancements. For example, if the Vspace software worked with 64 bit operating systems, then the X-series could be used with high-end workstations, which offer lots of processing power and memory. Those product enhancements may make it easier for a solution provider to sell a high-end workstation (with its higher margins) into a small business environment, where that expensive, high-end workstation actually can become the host for 11 additional users.
Although the product is easy to install and configure – Ncomputing does need to do a better job at defining system requirements and installation options. What’s more, the need to input serial numbers and registration/activation codes only adds to the installation burden. It is an obvious attempt at protecting the company’s intellectual property, but one has to wonder why that is needed – after all, the Vspace software only works with Ncomputing’s proprietary access devices.
The company does offer its L Series of products, which sets out to accomplish the same goal as the X series, but uses the Ethernet backbone to connect the access devices to the host computer. The L series can support as many as 30 users per host and is more in tune with the needs of a larger business.