The long arm of the LAN

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Imagine if all your computers were running in remote locations. Worse, the locations kept changing. How do you keep track of who has what machine? Who needs an upgrade? How do you get the latest copy of your product catalog to the salesman who just left for a convention in Poughkeepsie? And, most importantly, how do you fix the CEO's laptop (who is in Walla Walla) after he's deleted Excel (again) and needs to retrieve last month's sales projections for the board meeting?

It's OK; you can come out from underneath your desk now. We tested five software products that can manage your mobile machines: Xcellenet's Afaria, Swan International's Vision64, Callisto Software's Orbiter, Synchrologic's iMobile Suite and Mobile Automation's Mobile Automation 2000. Because each company has a different vision of what you need to get the job done, we devised a core set of functions as a basis for our comparisons: software deployment, application self-healing, hardware and software inventory, file backup or synchronization, and remote-control capabilities (see "How we did it").

We gave the Blue Ribbon Award to Mobile Automation 2000. While it didn't steal the show in all categories, it was a consistent finisher. It has a scalable infrastructure that is easy to install and manage. It also provides a thorough hardware and software inventory, and was easy to generate reports. The remote control features were fully functional. Finally, the backup of remote files and the ability to schedule restores was good.

If your needs are different, the other contenders may fit your bill perfectly. For example, iMobile Suite has some nice data management features, remote backup and restore functions, and lets handhelds connect via a workstation or directly. Similarly, Afaria offered extra connectivity and support options that might appeal to shops that are heavy on PDAs and light on remote workstations. And Vision64 is great if you need a heavyweight management program but don't have to worry about handhelds. Finally, if you need something that's easy to deploy and use, Orbiter may be your ticket.

Afaria

Xcellenet's Afaria offers the Laptop Server and the Handheld Server. Laptop Server is a bit of a misnomer, as it can manage any machine running any version of Windows. Xcellenet plans to merge these two products in future versions of Afaria. Both servers run on Windows NT or 2000, and communicate with the remote clients via Microsoft's Internet Information Server (IIS). But in the current release, they cannot run on the same server, and it requires two machines to manage both types of clients. Afaria uses Microsoft SQL Server or Oracle 8 as its database.

Management of Afaria can be accomplished through a Win32 executable or remotely with any current Web browser. Afaria has four distinct classes of functions: Software Management, Inventory Management, Document Management and Session Management. These are organized into "channels," which are used just like channels in Internet Explorer.

The Afaria server is also called a "transmitter." One nice feature of Afaria is the ability to replicate channels to other "target transmitters." Using this, you can place target transmitters in remote locations, saving WAN bandwidth and improving client response times.

There are two grades of client, the Channel Viewer and the Browser Client. The Browser Client uses a browser to connect to the Afaria server via IIS. If you don't use Internet

Explorer, you have to manually configure your Multi-purpose Internet Mail Extensions types to hand off the Afaria files to the underlying client. The Channel Viewer has more features and communicates directly with the Afaria server. The Browser Client is much smaller than the Channel Viewer, but if your users don't need to worry about details, the Browser Client offers all of the core functionality. Afaria also has a Java client for Solaris, HP-UX or Linux machines. It works like the Browser Client and can access channels published to Web pages on your servers.

The Channel Manager creates channels that are published and made available to the clients. The Channel Viewer can see them natively, the Browser Client requires HTML to be created on the server. Afaria creates the executables and the necessary HTML snippet, and can even put it in the clipboard for you. But you must put it in the proper page. This depends on how your Web site is set up, and how you want to organize things. In either case, one channel can be configured to run on connection. This is best used for your most important function, such as a virus definition update or your inventory collection.

Software Management lets you distribute and maintain applications and files. Applications can be delivered as an installation package, or as a series of files. If an application breaks, a user can select the application again through either client. The client compares what was in the original distribution to what is currently on the workstation. If any files don't exist or match, Afaria sends only the needed files to repair the distribution. However, Afaria can't detect a corrupt application, which requires user interaction or a scheduled channel execution to fix.

The Inventory Manager captures hardware and software inventory. Once activated, the Afaria client collects information about the workstation. If the laptop is still connected to the network when the client finishes the inventory, it sends the information back to the Afaria server. Otherwise, it waits until the next time a connection occurs. This lets the user disconnect whenever they need to and not wait on the client.

The Session Manager is the most powerful tool, but also the most difficult to master. It is a scripting tool that can perform almost any task. It can look at machine settings, manipulate files and even work with the registry. For example, if a new virus comes around, you could have a Session Manager script send new virus definitions to the client, run a scan, compress the log file and then send it back to the server.

Another nice feature is Afaria's Document Manager, which lets users on the local network "publish" documents to a channel from their desktops and share them with the remote users. Those who create the content can control who receives the documents, as well as whether they can be changed. New versions of documents can also be updated automatically. For example, a publications group that keeps its catalog in PDF can publish the catalog so the mobile salesforce can look for and download the latest version of the catalog.

For remote control, Afaria uses a special version of Symantec's PCAnywhere. It's basically the same PCAnywhere, but the Afaria version has rules for automatic delivery and installation, and snaps into the administration console directly. If PCAnywhere exists on a machine, you have to reinstall the Afaria version to make it work correctly from the Afaria console. Xcellenet left remote control as an add-on feature, so if you don't need it, or already have remote control, you don't need to install it or pay extra.

Afaria's Handheld Server supports three types of devices: Palm OS, Windows CE and the Research in Motion BlackBerry pager. Because Afaria was the only product that offered support for the BlackBerry, we did not test out its capabilities.

The device client is bulky. For the Palm devices, some of which have only 2M bytes of memory to begin with, a 173K-byte client might be hard to swallow. However, this larger client is fully functional, with or without the companion workstation. So if your PDA has a modem, the Afaria client can connect directly to the Handheld Server and execute its subscribed channels.

The Windows CE client worked well on our Compaq iPAQ 3650. The inventory and software channels worked just as flawlessly as they did on the workstations. But things didn't go quite as smoothly with our Palm III units. Sometimes HotSync would crash during updates, especially after software distributions. Worse yet, when trying to connect the Palm to the Afaria server directly, it would often give the Palm a Fatal Exception error, requiring a reset.

Because Windows for desktops and Windows CE use essentially the same APIs, it's not surprising that the Windows CE client was more stable. We shaved a little off the score for our Palm difficulties and the current requirement of needing two servers.

Vision64

Swan's Vision64 manages only Windows machines, but the company plans to expand into the handheld arena. Because Swan does the installation for you as part of the base purchase, this product gets a perfect score for installation. They come to your business, install the product and give you (or your staff) a brief tutorial on how to manage and use the product. Swan also offers consulting services for larger and more complex rollouts.

Vision64's management console is written in Java. This is handy because it gives the same tool no matter where you are. While the console is quick when running on the server machine, it took longer to load when we were remote. Connecting to the server to do administration over a slow link should probably be avoided because it takes a while for all the Java classes to transfer and load. But, if you're in a pinch, it will work.

We liked Vision64's administration details. The major features of Vision64 are separated when creating other administrative logons. You can grant read-only or full permissions on these tasks. For example, you could create an administrator that only has read access to the inventory, or perhaps you want someone to create software distributions, but nothing else. It's easy to choose the capabilities of each account with a few mouse clicks.

The Vision64 architecture scales well, and is obviously designed with large infrastructures in mind. One Master Server stays within the organization, but you can have any number of Intermediate Servers dispersed throughout your network. The Intermediate Servers can have administrative functions on them, or can be collection and distribution points. Collection Servers package the software distributions, which are stored on the other servers for delivery.

This may seem complex. Smaller organizations may only need one central Master Server and can choose to put the Collection Server on the same box. But Vision64 gives much larger corporations the ability to distribute services to any segment of their network as they see fit. This lets administrators put a service "closer" to dial-in connections for faster access, or put "local" servers in other offices, for better use of bandwidth.

For packaging and delivering applications to laptops, Vision64 has many options. For simple or small applications, its install program can be sent as a whole, then automatically launched, perhaps with an answer file or in silent mode. If the application or data is just a collection of files, it may be easier to just push them to specific directories on the client machines. However, Vision64 can also use its Collection Servers to take "snapshots" and package applications.

A snapshot of the laptop is taken before and immediately after the installation of an application. The Collection Server then compares the two snapshots to determine what needs to be sent. This includes new files, differences in existing files and even registry updates and changes.

Vision64 uses "integrity control" to periodically check these software distributions for accuracy. If it detects file or registry differences, it can send changes to fix potential problems. It can be configured to fix any difference in files, or it can assume that if the file is newer it is an acceptable update.

Another handy feature is how Vision64 can deliver these packages. You can transfer them to the server, install them and then delete them, or leave them on the workstation. The disadvantage in leaving the packages behind is in storage space. However, the advantage is that the Vision64 client then has the ability to self-heal the applications, even if disconnected from the network. It is possible to create CD images of your distributions and have the Integrity Control functions retrieve any needed files from there, rather than the hard disk. This compromise lets your remote repair applications without connecting to the network again.

For inventory, Vision64 can collect software and hardware information. If you want Desktop Management Interface hardware information or SNMP traps collected, it will require a third-party client piece (such as OpenManage) to pull from the clients. But once retrieved, Vision64 can incorporate the data into its databases (SQL or Oracle). The server can pull a complete directory listing from each machine. If someone is short on disk space, this will give the administrator a roadmap of where to find unneeded files.

On the management console, inventoried software is categorized first by vendor, then by product. It is easy to see what machine has which packages installed, or what machines a particular package is installed on. A query tool can define search criteria to find machines across your network. Once the inventory is collected, it is available to query, regardless of current connection status. You can define groups based on these queries to target certain functions, such as software upgrades, or knowing who gets which packages.

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