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Bye-bye PCs, hello Web-based computing

Two Neoware executives explain the benefits of appliance computing versus traditional computing

Face it: end users don't manage their PCs as meticulously as IT administrators manage servers. Yet, administrators can't baby-sit end users, especially those working in remote offices. Nor can they dole out 100% problem-free PCs. Thanks to appliance computing, however, a combination of those two options has emerged.

Appliance computing removes most of the power end-users have to destroy their PCs. With appliance computing, applications reside on Web servers, rather than on end-users' workstations. These workstations, or appliances, are stripped down, void of CD-ROMs and floppy drives, but are connected to servers in order to use applications. Therefore, administrators give users less leeway to download and install harmful or virus-ridden applications and programs. There is less of a chance for problems to pop up.

To get a better sense of appliance computing and its remote management functionalities, SearchWindowsManageability (SWM) spoke to Ed Parks, vice president of engineering, and Bill Bredbenner, director of software development, at King of Prussia, Penn.-based Neoware, Inc. Neoware's ezRemote Manager v2.3 administers networks running appliance computing and runs on Windows 2000/NT and XP Server Edition. It is available for $50 per seat.

SWM: Can you define appliance computing?

Parks: Appliance computing is a form of server-based computing where the applications running execute on a server, typically a Windows Web browser. You use a dedicated appliance, such as a thin client or Web kiosk, to access the server-run applications. These applications don't execute on the thin client. Software doesn't have to be on the thin client for these applications. The thin-client software is typically just an operating system and various connectivity programs, such as a Web browser.
Bredbenner: Appliances are not designed so that users will be inserting floppy disks and CD-ROMs.

SWM: Can you provide an example of an industry that benefits from appliance computing?

Parks: The retail market. Many large retail store chains have a corporate office in one city and 500 or 1,000 retail stores throughout the U.S. and the world. These corporations typically have somewhat low bandwidth connections to their stores through a WAN or some kind of satellite link. They're able to manage their thin clients from their corporate headquarters, however, because the bandwidth requirements are typically quite low.

SWM: Why is appliance computing easier to manage than PC-based computing?

Parks: The software that's on a thin client or an appliance is typically much less complex than what's on a PC. It doesn't require updating as frequently because it's a dedicated device. With PCs, you have to manage the versioning of the operating system and the applications on a regular basis. You have to keep reinstalling software as it becomes available. That might involve going to each and every desktop to do that client-side installation. With the appliance, the goal is to make them completely remotely manageable. So, systems administrators never have to go to a desktop and actually touch the device.
Bredbenner: Large organizations have diverse user groups where anything that can go wrong will go wrong. When enough people are playing around with PCs, they'll find ways to break them, either on purpose or by accident. That's much harder to do with an appliance. With appliance computing, there is very little state that's held on the appliance other than basic networking and configuration information. So, if a unit fails in the field, you can have spares available to grab out of the closet and plug in. That's something that can usually be done by a non-technical person.
Parks: It's very difficult to completely lock down a Windows-based PC. Particularly if it has a floppy drive and users are capable of inserting their own floppies or CD-ROMs and installing things.

SWM: How much time can administrators save with appliance computing as opposed to PC-based computing?

Parks: A single administrator can manage hundreds if not thousands of these appliances with appliance computing. That would be a tall order for PCs.
Bredbenner: Particularly when the end systems are geographically dispersed, you see a huge savings. So, not only is it cheaper, but you can usually respond faster to problems because you can fix them remotely.

SWM: Could you outline some of the most common technical problems IT managers have in the remote management of appliances?

Bredbenner: The biggest problems are setting them up the first place, depending on how stringent the enterprise network security is. It's like any other large deployment. You have to potentially reconfigure some of your firewalls and routers to allow in new management policies safely.

SWM: So, how can administrators set up appliances more easily?

Parks: Create a set of connections for the users. These connections represent servers or published applications that the end user is going to have access to. Work on these connections in a lab or controlled environment and set up connections using the local user interface on the appliance.

SWM: Conversely, what are some of the technical problems PC-based companies face?

Parks: Although Microsoft has worked very hard to develop zero administration technologies, it hasn't worked out well for most companies. They get some degree of remote administration but there are cases where the end user has a problem, and it just can't be diagnosed or fixed remotely. They have to send someone out to fix it. That just doesn't happen with thin client appliances because the software is very simple. It's on the appliance, and it's completely geared to remote management.

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