As a growing number of analysts collect more information from multiple sources, the number of desktop computers they use is growing. When each user has several computers, complex cabling, redundant power supplies and finding space for additional computers pose a growing problem. Solutions are starting to reduce complexity and cost while enhancing the work environment.

In this Defense Systems Pathfinder, we discuss the issue with Dewayne Adams, Vice President of Product Development for NCS Technologies.

Q1 How is the demand changing for secure desktop systems where individuals use multiple computers? View Answer

Dwayne Adams
Vice President of Product Development for NCS Technologies.

The need for single-worker, single-desk usage of multiple computers is actually quite large, both in the government and in parts of the commercial enterprise. From our experience in serving the federal marketplace, we estimate there are hundreds of thousands of workers who must contend with multiple computers on their desks. The use of multiple computers is a fact of life for many in the military and government agencies who need separate, secure access to multiple networks, applications and services. When someone needs another computer for a new task, such as access to a different secure network, someone from information technology (IT) brings in a new computer and sticks it under the desk.

The need for multiple computers is driven by security policies that require information to remain completely separate. Data on one kind of network cannot be exposed to data from another network. This can require some users to have two, three, even four or five computers on their desks.

We see this is most often driven by security policies where information technology managers require a single computer to be dedicated to a single secure network, such as NIPRnet, SIPRnet and/or JWICS, for example.

Intelligence and defense analysts are some of the largest users of multicomputing systems. There’s a growing need for these types of analysts, which means there’s greater need for secure, multiple computer environments. Our research shows that most workers in secure, multiple computer environments have to contend with significant productivity and IT management challenges on a day-today basis. The challenges range from the merely annoying, like cramped, cluttered and over-heated work spaces, to cabling issues and significant energy inefficiencies. The computing industry needs to better address these challenges.

Q2 As computing power increases, is it possible to have one large system replace a number of discrete computers on the desktop? View Answer

Dwayne Adams
Vice President of Product Development for NCS Technologies.

This is obviously an important industry trend, it’s commonly called virtualization. You are describing where a military or intelligence analyst might have one powerful workstation on the desktop, but run multiple PC environments as a virtual machine.

In another virtual computing scenario, an analyst might have a thin or zero client on his or her desktop, and be serviced by a powerful server back in the data center. That scenario is called virtual desktop infrastructure, or VDI.

Most security policies prohibit both of these virtual scenarios because of the danger of secure data escaping within the data center server or within the lone workstation on the desktop. Remember that there are strict security policies dictating that multiple computing systems need to remain physically separate, in some cases by literally inches or feet of separation. Today, a hardware solution with multiple deskside computers is best for the vast majority of users.

However, we see virtual machines improving and having a role to play. We are dealing with customers who will implement both integrated hardware and virtualization and we support that effort. The need for multiple computer hardware clients on one desk will be there for some time to come.

Q3 What other factors must be considered in environments where one user has many computers? View Answer

Dwayne Adams
Vice President of Product Development for NCS Technologies.

A big factor is cabling. The cables are most often visible at the switch box that links the individual computers to the keyboard, video and mouse, typically called the KVM switch. The KVM module allows a user to control the multiple computers from a single keyboard and to use fewer video monitors. Keep in mind that users of multiple computers all have a KVM switch on their desk. These modules also connect the computers to the displays. Sometimes there’s one, other times two or even three displays are used by one person.

Many KVMs sit tipped on desktops because they’re weighed down with so many cables. If one operator has four computers, the KVM will have ten video cables, four audio cables and the cabling for the mouse, keyboard and smart card reader. That is quite a cumbersome rat’s nest to have around your desk. And it’s difficult to manage from an IT perspective.

For users, the biggest issue is that KVMs usually sit near the back of the desk because at least one cable is short. Users have to press the front of the KVM to switch from one system to another, so having the module at the back of the desk can be annoying and inconvenient. We have heard a lot of complaints about clunky and annoying KVM and cabling implementations as we did research on this issue. We feel the computing industry can do better in serving these users of multiple secure computers. That’s why we feel strongly that integrated multiple client systems are the direction the industry needs to go.

When computer systems are stacked in an integrated multiple client system, which sits on the desktop as a single module, the cabling and connections can be built into the module of the computing system so there’s far less external wiring. As an example of what can be done with smart engineering, we’ve dramatically reduced the number of cables. In addition, we’ve introduced the industry’s first secure remote control which is operated with only one wire. The remote is conveniently placed where it’s more easily reached. Imagine how much more convenient that is.

Q4 Is there a way to repackage computer systems to eliminate the bulk that comes with having multiple, large desktop form factors at one desk? View Answer

Dwayne Adams
Vice President of Product Development for NCS Technologies.

The mini-tower form factor for desktop systems hasn’t changed size in over 10 years, and we know how much smaller everything else has gotten over that time. So there’s a lot that companies can do if they aren’t bound by the constraints of the commercial marketplace. Computers can be built specifically for users who must have dedicated, secure computers. These systems can be packaged so they stack on top of each other to save a significant amount of space. This kind of innovative engineering makes it possible to have separate computers for multiple tasks while leveraging technology efficiencies such as a common power supply. This can deliver solid cost savings while reducing a lot of the waste heat that comes with the inefficiency of multiple power supplies.

An integrated approach allows you to eliminate much of the noise generated by fans. Another benefit is a reduction in the number of cables that tangle up behind computers. Much of the cabling can be hidden in an integrated approach inside the stack of computers, and you only need one set of cables to go to the KVM module that manages the peripherals.

We think this approach will be the wave of the future. We’re investing heavily to continue moving this architecture forward. NCS calls this approach the Stratus MCS, which addresses issues such as efficient cabling utilization, power efficiency, user ergonomics, and total cost of ownership. It delivers the first secure KVM switch operable with a remote control, which is in the process of final NIAP certification.

Q5 How can users employ the latest keyboard, video and mouse technologies? View Answer

Dwayne Adams
Vice President of Product Development for NCS Technologies.

In order to serve this marketplace which must ensure secure implementation of IT solutions, any new technology used in these systems, including KVM components, must attain National Information Assurance Partnership (NIAP) certification. The National Institute of Standards and Technology and the National Security Agency have established the NIAP program to evaluate IT product conformance to international standards.

The program, officially known as the NIAP Common Criteria Evaluation and Validation Scheme for IT Security, is a partnership between the public and private sectors. This program is being implemented to help in the selection of products that meet security requirements and to help manufacturers as we design, manufacture and sell these products.

Q6 Can laptops or tablets be integrated into these environments to trim space requirements? View Answer

Dwayne Adams
Vice President of Product Development for NCS Technologies.

Multi-computing environments typically use conventional desktop tower computers. They’re the most cost-effective way to bring computing power into this environment. Typically, users are not allowed to move equipment.

Laptops could help reduce space requirements somewhat. Real estate is a big factor when you have several analysts using several computers in one room. But laptops are expensive compared to desktops. They have many components you don’t need in the desktop environment, batteries, displays and keyboards.

Q7 What else is being done to reduce power consumption? View Answer

Dwayne Adams
Vice President of Product Development for NCS Technologies.

There’s a revolution occurring in the microprocessor world. Semiconductor suppliers like Intel have reduced the power consumption of a central processor unit by 30-40 watts, a level which is no more than a small light bulb.

In some systems, there’s a shift to solid state disk drives, which are built with flash memory instead of hard disk drives. The flash memory of solid state disks is more expensive than a disk drive, but flash memory is far faster, so there’s a significant performance advantage. At the same time, it takes less power to drive a bank of flash memory devices than it takes to spin the platters in a hard drive. Quieter operation is yet another benefit. Hard drives aren’t that noisy, but if you take a number of them out of a room, it can make a noticeable difference in the noise level as well as the temperature level.

Q8 How will these specially-packaged systems compete with commercial off the shelf (COTS) desktops? View Answer

Dwayne Adams
Vice President of Product Development for NCS Technologies.

The next generation of multi-computing systems such as Stratus MCS are designed from the ground up with a fresh point of view, they aren’t limited to existing off the shelf components. Designers can leverage commodity components to keep costs down. They can also implement additional components to bring dramatic improvements in performance or the user experience. One of the biggest improvements for multi-computing systems comes from sharing the power supply. The inefficiencies in power supplies manifest themselves as heat. You might think that the excess heat thrown off by multiple computers in a work environment is strictly a “green” issue – a waste of energy. And that is, or course, correct in that multiple computers on a desk do use significant amounts of energy.

However, in our research, we found military and government workers who had another kind of environmental challenge. Many of these jobs are extremely sensitive and physical office infrastructure changes are difficult. As such, we found these rows of PCs were often keeping the offices too warm for comfort, in some cases well into the 80s. So solving the power efficiency puzzle saves operational expenses, is better for the environment and is, in many cases, just more comfortable.

Q9 Is there any spot for wireless technologies in this environment? To meet security requirements, wireless technologies are generally not used. The same is true for components like a wireless mouse or keyboard. View Answer

Dwayne Adams
Vice President of Product Development for NCS Technologies.

To meet security requirements, wireless technologies are generally not used. The same is true for components like a wireless mouse or keyboard.

Q10 How can desktop computers that are specialized for multi-computer environments match the performance of commercial off the shelf desktops? View Answer

Dwayne Adams
Vice President of Product Development for NCS Technologies.

Next generation solutions are typically delivered with the very latest Intel 3rd generation Core processors and chipsets and the latest Microsoft software technologies. As systems age, if necessary, users have the ability to upgrade the motherboard if they need more computing power. They can also change the chassis while keeping the same infrastructure. That’s important, because in this field, systems are usually upgraded every three to five years.

Q11 What strategies can help military planners/buyers meet user demand in an era when cost is becoming a bigger issue? View Answer

Dwayne Adams
Vice President of Product Development for NCS Technologies.

First of all, any integrated multi-computer system offered by a manufacturer must be at least as cost effective as buying a number of standalone computers. Beyond that, most now want to focus on lifetime costs, or cost of ownership. Systems have to be designed to be economical to operate and easy to repair.

As an example, the industry needs to design systems that are tool-less so they’re easy to repair. With some COTS desktops today, for a repair you have to have a screwdriver and you have to keep track of all the screws – harder than it sounds. You also need some special tools to remove certain components.

With tool-less systems, maintenance personnel can replace boards and other components without using anything but their hands. That can dramatically shorten the time needed to replace a hard drive or swap out a motherboard. That really reduces maintenance costs.

In the area of cost of ownership, we have found that power optimization is a critical factor. We have found that one common power supply can deliver significant energy efficiencies. We all need to be more green in our work environments and this is a great way to do it.

Q12 Are there commercial markets for stackable multi-computer platforms that can boost volumes and reduce costs? View Answer

Dwayne Adams
Vice President of Product Development for NCS Technologies.

In the financial world, many individuals who trade stocks need separate networks for different trading boards, like the New York Stock Exchange, NASDAQ, and foreign markets. In the medical field, there’s the need for separate computers to meet Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) regulations.

Clearly there are other fields besides military that have strict security requirements. For example, NCS today is seeing that the financial services industry and the software development industry are two areas that have many of the same concerns that we see in military and government installations.

Q13 What are some of the other security issues in military sites that use multi-computer desktops? View Answer

Dwayne Adams
Vice President of Product Development for NCS Technologies.

All systems on secure sites must meet information assurance (IA) requirements.

Q14 What networking challenges are faced when users set up and expand their desktop environments? View Answer

Dwayne Adams
Vice President of Product Development for NCS Technologies.

Customers need completely discrete networks. Each module must have its own network connection. Many of the networks now use fiber optic cabling.

Q15 15. What do you believe the integrated approach is the wave of the future for military and government users who must operate multiple PCs on one desktop in the workplace? View Answer

Dwayne Adams
Vice President of Product Development for NCS Technologies.

We have no doubt that integrated solutions will significantly replace single PCs in the months and years ahead, with more system suppliers moving to this model. That’s because this architecture improves ergonomics, brings energy savings and lowers the cost of ownership. Both users and IT departments favor the improved manageability these systems bring, especially in this environment of budgetary restraint. Only the most efficient solutions will prevail.