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Security-conscious laptop stores data at distant site

The Baltimore Sun

PHILADELPHIA--With the business data and personal dirt residing on laptop PCs often more valuable than the machines themselves, it?s no wonder that headlines about stolen corporate and government computers have created such a furor.

Devon IT has responded with a laptop that has most of the sensitive stuff - namely, the hard drive - removed.

"I saw all these laptops being stolen," said Joe Makoid, president of the King of Prussia, Pa.-based company. "The exposure to data loss is terrible."

The Commerce Department disclosed last month that it had lost 1,137 laptops since 2001, including 672 at the Census Bureau, the primary collector of information about U.S. citizens. The Veterans Affairs Department said in May that a staff laptop was stolen in a home burglary, compromising the personal data of 26.5 million veterans. That laptop was recovered, apparently undamaged, after intensive media coverage.

Devon IT's $800 unit, called the Safebook, works much like the "thin-client" desktop PCs found in much of corporate America. Software programs and even an employee's personal data aren't stored on the worker's desktop computer, but in a company server room, which is often deep within the building or off-site.

There have been previous attempts at thin-client laptops, but until recently they have been a hard sell because of slow or unavailable wireless networks.

The Safebook is a "dumb terminal," meaning it isn't capable of doing much when not connected to the company's main computing brain. So how does one connect while on the move during sales calls? Through wireline or wireless broadband, including Wi-Fi and cellular phone-based networks.

The lack of features when unplugged from the password-protected corporate network make the device unattractive to would-be thieves, Makoid said.

Oracle Corp. chief executive Lawrence J. Ellison famously predicted in 1995 that most desktops would one day be dumb terminals that function fully only when connected to a network. That vision is slowly taking hold in the corporate desktop world but has yet to find favor in the home market or among users of laptops.

"Larry Ellison absolutely had the right vision," Makoid said, "but he was five years ahead of the curve.

"The thing that's always held it back is, the availability of broadband everywhere, and the price point," Makoid said.

"We wanted it to be below $800."

The Ellison/Oracle device cost several times more than a regular PC, and at the time, near-ubiquitous broadband seemed as futuristic as glass-domed cities and flying cars.

Large businesses eventually came to embrace the concept, though. Taking away employees' ability to download games and custom software might annoy them, but it also reduces maintenance chores for a company's information technology department, ultimately saving money.

According to research firm Gartner Inc., the annual cost per user in an office using traditional "fat-client" PCs is $5,000. In a thin-client environment, it's $3,000, according to Gartner.

But "it's not a pure savings model," said Chris Fleck, vice president of platform development for Citrix Systems Inc., of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Citrix, an established company in the thin-client networking industry, has been working with Devon IT to optimize Safebook for Citrix systems, which Citrix says are used by all Fortune 100 firms.

"The early adopters are motivated by the risk of what happens if that data gets stolen," Fleck said.

The risks run from bad publicity to loss of sensitive corporate data to penalties for violating privacy requirements mandated by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA.

Sales in the segment have been robust.

Neoware, which sells thin-client desktop PCs, saw its fiscal 2006 revenue increase 36 percent to $107.2 million, despite a disappointing fourth quarter.

Neoware spokesman Baker Egerton declined to speak in detail about the company's plans, if any, for a thin-client-style laptop.

He did say, in an e-mail response, that Neoware is "seeing strong demand in the marketplace for a mobile solution."

For consumers, a thin laptop may have limited appeal, although companies such as Citrix are now offering services that allow users to securely duplicate their home PC from any computer while on the road.

"The primary use for that is 'pro-sumers' - professional consumers," Fleck said. Citrix defines them as small-business people, independent contractors, and others who may keep most or all of their business data on one machine.

Makoid of Devon IT has tempered his expectations about who will use the Safebook.

"It's never going to be for everybody, but if I was a chief information officer, it wouldn't make sense" not to have it, Makoid said.

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