'PC killer' Pano cube reaches UK

Will cloud computing see the end of the PC?

In the age of cloud computing what will replace the desktop PC? One U.K. reseller thinks it has found the answer in an innocuous silver cube with the footprint of a CD case.

It's called the 'Pano', or 'Pano Virtual desktop' to use its full title, and is hailed by the company bringing it to the U.K. for the first time, Nebulas Solutions, as the industry's first "zero client".

The creation of US startup, Pano Logic, the device has no operating system or drivers, no CPU, no memory, no hard disk, and no graphics chip. The computer, if it can be called that, consists only of the interfaces to connect a mouse, keyboard and monitor, and external USB drive.

The Pano hooks into VMware - support for Microsoft and Citrix are talked of for the future - using a proprietary protocol, on top of which it runs Windows management software and client configuration utilities that are the company's crown jewels.

As well as offering central security such as USB port control and encrypted communication between server and the Pano device using 128-bit AES, it also has a undeniably green feature of using only a few watts of electricity. Even at rest, the average PC will eat many times this figure.

According to Nebulas's managing director Nick Garlick, the Pano is no reprise of the green screens hooked dumbly to mainframes of the past or even today's thin clients.

"They [thin clients] have limitations on the apps they can publish. It is OK, but only for a certain set of apps," said Garlick. "Now we can stream apps [using the Pano], we can handle anything."

The company had been assessing the device and software for some months, but only decided to launch it officially once Pano had recently launched version 2.5 of its management console. This upgrade meant that the system could now provide an application experience indistinguishable from running the same software locally on a conventional PC.

"The Pano and virtualisation technology will revolutionise the desktop. Given the overwhelming advantages in terms of power, cost and management savings, it's difficult to see why organisations wouldn't want to implement it," said Garlick.

There seems little doubt in the minds of most commentators that desktop virtualisation will slowly strangle the life out of the beige office PC in its current form, though laptops - currently a significant chunk of the PC market - will probably be immune to this trend. If devices such as the Pano mark the beginning of this new age, the key test will be performance, security and management.

Virtualisation will probably not lower security costs, but it will rationalise them into a more predictable form, while virtualised desktop installations will undoubtedly be able to function using smaller IT departments. In the short term, performance is more of an open issue, though Garlick is confident that this hurdle has already been leapt with better software capable of handling even the demands of tough, latency-sensitive applications such as video.

The device is currently undergoing trials in a number of U.K. companies, but is available at a cost of £268 ($399) per machine, plus an annual support fee of £54 ($80) each, excluding licensing costs for VMware and Windows, and any applications being used.

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