Of all the marketing concepts that have proliferated in the IT industry recently, intelligent manageability for the desktop is the one that has grabbed most executive mindshare.
For the financial director, the appeal of a management model that promises to slash the cost of desktop ownership is boundless. For the network manager, the implications are more practical: self- configuring PCs, automatic fault reporting and identification, software distribution and true system interoperability.
It?s undoubtedly an alluring prospect for anyone responsible for managing the increasingly distributed end devices on today?s corporate networks ? a cumbersome task that has been described as ?welding lorries together to make a spaceship?. And the IT industry is in paroxysms of self congratulation over its success at both identifying and then making a concerted effort to solve this overwhelming customer requirement.
Interface task force
The Desktop Management Task Force (DMTF), founded in 1992, is an industry-wide consortium that aims to make PCs easier to use and manage. Its crowning glory is the Desktop Management Interface (DMI), the industry?s standard for describing and accessing information about PCs and PC components.
The first DMI specification (1.0) was made available to the industry in 1994, closely followed by the first standard, Management Information Format (MIF), which determined the definitions of a PC system, how it can identify itself to management software and how it can become self-managing. The first DMI-enabled products appeared early the following year.
DMI 2.0 was ratified in 1996, adding remote capabilities for managers who need to access information on any system on the network, regardless of its location. The DMTF claims universal success for the uptake of DMI 2.0, with all the main systems vendors providing compliant service layers and software development kits, and some 200 DMI-enabled products available to systems managers.
Firm, flexible hold
The idea is that DMI offers systems managers the basis for a common, flexible and sophisticated means of controlling devices across their vast, distributed networks. For vendors, compliance is a standard block on which they can build their own specific features. And there?s the rub.
While DMI is compatible with and complementary to other recognised standards, such as SNMP, IP and Plug ?n? Play, basic compliance does not signify true interoperability. Users are still tied to the vendor-specific options that best meet their business requirements if they want to receive the full benefits of intelligent manageability. Vendors stand accused of perpetuating that old industry anomaly, the proprietary standard, and locking users in to their own architectures, with basic DMI compliance just a cynical nod in the direction of open systems, however wide the industry claims support might be.
The relatively measured pace of standard ratification can be a stumbling block for vendors? own development efforts. After spotting a potentially lucrative customer requirement, few of them are prepared to wait for an eventual standard when there is a market to be made.
Compaq, for example, has taken its share of criticism for jumping the gun and promoting its own standards. James Griffiths, senior product manager for commercial desktops, acknowledges the charge, but insists that DMI only defines the base level of manageability. It?s up to vendors how much else they put in and, he insists, Compaq?s Intelligent Manageability technology still delivers more information to systems managers than other manufacturers.
?Compaq has been on the DMTF steering committee from the start ? in fact we wrote the original MIF,? he says. ?But, without an established standard, the systems management market was still fragmented. There were individual elements like SNMP, but we recognised the need for a standard at the desktop. Rather than just wait, we developed our own capabilities, working closely with the major LAN management software vendors.
He adds: ?Yes, some might consider that we were working in a proprietary way, but we?ve always recognised the importance of standards. We?ve always made sure that our manageability features have been DMI-compliant since the standard became usable.?
Griffiths points to Compaq?s decision to pass Smart, its self-monitoring analysis and reporting technology, into the public domain as evidence of the vendor?s commitment to standards. But the fact remains that anyone who wants to take full advantage of Compaq?s DMI 2.0-compliant Intelligent Management facilities ? which, in addition to Smart, include configuration, fault and security management, and asset control ? can do so only by investing in Compaq hardware. There?s nothing particularly open about that.
?Anyone responsible for enterprise management has to deal with whatever platform vendors choose to throw at them,? says Mark Watson, technical consultant at Tivoli, the cross-platform applications management vendor which recently became an IBM subsidiary. ?These vendors haven?t set out to solve the enterprise management issue at all. At the high end, they see management solutions as an avenue for pushing their own hardware. At the low end, they?re simply concerned with developing solutions to manage the Microsoft world.?
According to Watson, intelligent manageability on the desktop is only one element of a complex picture. He lists a daunting range of issues which the modern systems manager faces and which make the value of DMI to the average user seem, at present, less than vendors would like us to believe.
?Sure, management tools are getting better for those that have them,? he says. ?But the real issue is applications management. Vendors have been stung by accusations of fatware production and, as a result are breaking their applications up into smaller but less manageable parts. As a consequence, modern enterprise applications are complex things to manage.?
Other considerations include the growth of the mobile workforce, which means that managers must increasingly grapple with dynamic addressing and can?t depend on using the address of the device itself to identify remote portables. Software upgrades, bad enough with complex applications but virtually impossible with roll-your-own solutions, can?t be guaranteed to reach every single laptop, and any broadcast-dependent activities across the network are at a similar disadvantage.
?DMI has been successful,? says Watson. ?The MIF, in particular, is widely used. It provides an understandable language which we have used in our own applications management specification. The next step is the definition of a common information model (CIM), based on object-oriented technologies, which the DMTF is working on. The systems management market is driven by these basic standards and the vendor partnerships which subsequently arise.?
Such partnerships predominate. Hewlett Packard is on a drive to promote intelligent manageability as a business process, after recently acquiring service and LAN management tools from Prolin and Symantec. The Symantec toolset ? Norton Administrator for Networks ? has been renamed Openview Desktop Administrator and is, says UK manager for enterprise management Godfrey Jordan, part of HP?s strategy for making the desktop more manageable.
?Users are asking for manageability from the palmtop all the way to the mainframe, and that?s the need we are addressing,? says Jordan. ?The service management tools with Openview enable you to manage devices that are the other side of the corporate firewall: the mobile workforce. We?re extending manageability beyond the intranet.?
HP?s Openview Ready programme has attracted hardware vendors, including Dell and Silicon Graphics. They are bundling their servers with a reduced version of Openview, comprising the GUI, IT operations manager and network node manager ? enough to manage a single system and give users further out in the enterprise a taste of what was considered a high-end management environment without heavy investment in HP kit. Jordan, of course, says he would be more than happy if it did lead to increased hardware sales.
Cost of ownership
Leaving aside industry evangelism, the main issue driving user interest in intelligent manageability is probably cost of ownership. The advent of the Network Computer (NC) and the NetPC have, if nothing else, forced IT purchasers to look closely at the support and management costs involved in providing traditional PC client seats.
Some have even considered the NC as a method of regaining control and ownership of the desktop which is, to say the least, ironic when the PC revolution succeeded because organisations could see the PC?s role as an enabling tool for their end users. There may well be a market for the NC and the NetPC, but managers will have to make a trade-off between easier management and less functionality.
There is also the service element, which remains steady. As Watson says: ?Devices like the NC just shift the focus of the management. The amount of IT that you have to manage stays the same. Welcome as it is, the zero administration concept simply gives you an option of disabling your users from certain activities. The systems still need to be managed.?
According to Griffiths, users who are committed to reducing cost of ownership will derive real benefits from intelligent manageability. ?Cost of ownership issues demand over and above base level DMI compliance,? he says. ?The NetPC and the integration of NetPC-style technology into the PC give the systems manager the chance to take complete control of the desktop. You can power up out of hours, distribute software, carry out remote monitoring, install and boot up new machines, all without user intervention. Your return on investment depends on how committed you are to intelligent manageability.?
Estimates for corporate PC cost of ownership vary. Some go as high as $13,300 per seat per year. A recent report conducted by Harris Research on behalf of SCO suggests that an alarming amount of productivity is lost because of PC downtime. The report, which canvassed 400 PC users in medium and large companies throughout Europe, concluded that implementing new systems costs two-and-a-half hours per employee and one-and-a-half hours are lost due to equipment malfunction. Seventy-one per cent of respondents expressed frustration at PC failure, and software upgrades were identified as one of the main reasons why PCs fail. Clearly, with intelligent manageability, these issues could be driven through once and for all ? and support costs would tumble accordingly. Or would they?
Not exactly, says Datapro analyst Anne Powell. ?Intelligent management is hugely ?in?, so it?s getting a lot of emphasis,? she says. ?But practically speaking, it remains a limited prospect. Too many customers are still using legacy systems, which just don?t support these new management solutions. And if you have a big mix of end devices, the main question is how to get it all working together. Mobile computing devices are, for example, very difficult to manage and it?s too early to say how effective DMI will be at reining them in. Intelligent management is just one of the issues that network managers face.?
Powell agrees that, while most vendors? management solutions adhere to standards, many of them use proprietary standards for actual implementation, thus tying customers in. ?Ultimately, standards such as DMI ? which is still in its infancy as far as most users are concerned ? will provide truly beneficial solutions,? she says. ?But taking them on board is a slower process than vendors would like to think.?
Ability to mix
In other words, it will be some time before manageable PCs have garnered a significant share of the market and, even then, they will continue to share the stage with a range of devices, which means that network and systems managers will continue to rely on the same ad hoc mixture of standards, tools and the basic instinct for survival that is their stock-in-trade today. They will still have to do everything themselves.
?The best solution will be delivered by the vendor that delivers what works best in mixed environments,? says Powell. But the implication is that this eventuality is still some way off.
The industry is so competitive that truly open standards and interoperability remain constantly on the horizon. You have to wonder whether it will ever have what it takes to deliver more than the basic guideline for intelligent management offered by DMI. Vendors will continue to evolve their own tweaks and tools which make their own interpretation, on their own platform, more attractive than anyone else?s, using cost of ownership as their main sales lever.
The DMTF has identified cost of ownership as one of the major elements of the PC management challenge. This emphasis has helped the whole issue of intelligent management to grab attention at the highest corporate levels, encouraging it to be seen as a panacea for all the overheads associated with PC use in the workplace. But as Powell says, no matter how many statistics the industry calculates, it?s virtually impossible to measure cost of ownership.
?The costs that intelligent manageability targets are not self-evident to begin with. And once you?ve adopted it, it will be equally difficult to see where you?ve made any savings,? she says. ?It?s a catchy issue to sell on, but calculating customer savings will be extremely difficult. Yes, savings will rise as managed PCs increase as a percentage of the total stock within an organisation, but as those same PCs are absorbed, so they will be less visible.?
In the end, it is more likely that network and systems managers will gradually buy into intelligent manageability as the solutions they source from their suppliers become more integrated and all-embracing. Vendors will continue to forge strategic partnerships in an effort to make sure that their offerings include the most complementary network and systems management tools.
DMI ? providing as it does a common path for technical support people, IT managers and individual users to access information about all aspects of a PC ? is a start. But the real picture in most organisations is too complex for it to have an immediate and pervasive effect. Whatever the genuine benefits might be, network managers are, on the whole, resistant to the hype. They are actually more concerned with day-to-day containment than the wholesale introduction of a new phase of managed PCs.
Indeed, if trends in the outsourced helpdesk market are to be believed, PC management is one aspect of their workload that they would prefer to farm out altogether.
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