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Is It Time for Diskless PCs?

Although Oracle, NEC, Wyse and other major vendors have long promoted diskless PCs, the technology has failed to establish a beachhead within enterprise IT shops. This appears to be changing with the release of Microsoft's Vista operating system. Vista offers virtualization features specifically designed to make diskless PCs -- also known as network computers, or "thin clients," because of their significantly reduced cost when compared to traditional PCs -- more attractive.

Still, for a variety of technical and organizational reasons, a complete change of mindset is required before enterprise IT shops will fully accept them. "A lot of users don't like giving up the control of having applications and data stored locally," says Rich Seidner, president of Silicon Valley Virtual Inc., an IT consulting firm based in Woodside, Calif. "Making the shift requires enterprises to put user education and training programs, as well as new technological processes, in place"

Diskless Drawbacks
A diskless PC is exactly what it sounds like: a microcomputer without a dedicated hard drive. Instead, data and applications are stored on remote hard drives, such as those in storage area networks (SANs) kept in the data center. This approach has plusses and minuses. (article continues)

"While people may understand the total cost of ownership [TCO] savings," says Brian Madden, an independent consultant based in Silver Spring, Md. "Moving to diskless PCs requires investing in new software and technologies, and doing things in ways that are completely different from what they've done in the past"

Several challenges have impeded the mainstream deployment of network PCs. For starters, because a network connection is required at all times, this type of hardware tends not to work for companies with a large number of mobile employees who are frequently away from the office, or who habitually take laptops home to work. Likewise, not all applications have the architecture to operate on thin-client hardware. "Diskless PCs require either a server-based computing backend, or some kind of streaming solution," says Madden. Finally, many software vendors have yet to establish licensing arrangements that are compatible with use of diskless PCs.

Thin Clients Gain Weight
However, in addition to lower TCO, there are three key advantages to moving to diskless PCs that are responsible for increased interest in the technology:

  • Access for all If anything goes wrong with a piece of hardware, a user can just move over to the next cubicle and start right up where he or she left off with no loss of productivity. "You're talking seconds rather than hours for getting a user up and running on new hardware after a crash," says Seidner. (article continues)

  • Seamless software transitions Because everything is done at the server level, there's no need to install software on separate machines or individually upgrade applications. "Everything is done behind the scenes, without disturbing users. This dramatically reduces hardware maintenance costs and keeps employees productive during major software transitions," says Seidner.
  • Enhanced security One of the biggest security risks for the enterprise network is unauthorized downloads of programs or content from the Internet. That simply can't happen with thin clients. Likewise, because all antivirus and anti-spam protection exists at the server level, IT management needn't be concerned about security breaches on individual machines. Finally, data residing on the server is much easier to back up and protect against loss or theft -- a prime concern when individual users keep important data on their own personal hard drives.

Network PCs have been on the verge of making a breakthrough to more widespread use for more than a decade. As their advantages are leveraged by the ubiquitous availability of high-speed Internet access and the growing interest in virtualization technologies are making them increasingly attractive to enterprises, the diskless PC's day may finally have dawned.

Reinforcing WiFi Redundancy

Redundancy is routine in the constant scramble to keep a conventional enterprise network functioning. But the wireless infrastructure is often ignored, leaving enterprises vulnerable to malicious attacks and network failure.

No longer a hot-spot sideshow, wireless is on track to become the primary enterprise network sooner than you might think. "Although the all-wireless enterprise, such as Intel's, is not yet the norm, it is expected to be by mid- to late-2008 and into early 2009," says Chris Silva, an analyst with the Forrester research group based in Cambridge, Mass. Redundancy neglect now will only cause greater problems in the future.

Wired + Wireless = One Network
The impending move from wired to wireless is prodding IT professionals to shift gears and build a bulwark of safeguards. Successful transition, however, requires more than simply duplicating key parts of wireless hardware. "A redundant infrastructure means anticipating points of failure for the network and creating ways of preventing the network from failing, no matter what nightmare scenario takes place," advises Stan Schatt, VP of ABI Research in New York, N.Y.

Among the points of potential failures are the hidden recesses of the physical plant. "Redundancy efforts must ensure 100 percent coverage of the building as much as it must ensure constant reliability of the network. You have to account for new obstacles such as building materials, walls, stairwells and corner dead zones," advises Silva.

Paradoxically, despite intensified scrutiny of the wireless infrastructure, IT departments cannot afford to ignore the wired network. (article continues)

"Even though these networks are separate, wireless users often connect to a wire-line network. A network manager has to be aware of issues associated with the WiFi device and network that could bring down the wire-line network," observes Schatt.

In short, the entire network system -- both wired and wireless -- is mission critical.  Yet too many enterprises are missing the message, warns San Jose, Calif. -based Rachna Ahlawat, research director of Gartner's Wireless Networking. "There's not much difference in redundancy for wired and wireless. Both must be covered."

Eight Secrets to Achieving Redundancy
How can IT departments super-size their redundancy plans? Consider these eight ways to reinforce your entire network:

  • Intelligent switches (controller) As the wireless LAN (WLAN) industry moves toward a model with the real intelligence centered in the switch or controller, a resilient WiFi network should have additional unused switches to permit active failover. 
  • Battery backup for the switch In the event of a power failure, backup power is needed for the switch and for access points that rely on power over Ethernet (POE).
  • Hot-swappable spares for the switch Most switches now permit hot-swapping of failed circuit boards, allowing quick replacement of components without the need to shut down the entire network segment.
  • Dense access point configuration Today's access points can direct their traffic to replacements if one fails, but if the access points are out of radio range for users, they are useless. Make sure there are sufficient access points for the system. (article continues)

  • Load balancing Increasing use of voice-over-wireless LAN (VOWLAN) is pushing demand for an industry standard for load balancing. Until voice-over WiFi calls can be recognized and equally distributed among access points, a user could get a busy signal when trying to make a call. To avoid this unacceptable condition, IT departments may need to design their own load balancing solutions.
  • Roaming Users need to be able to roam between subnets without having their connections dropped. The IEEE 802.11r standard that supports this function has not yet been ratified, but most equipment vendors are offering their own proprietary solutions in the interim and promise to upgrade to the final standard when it is approved.
  • Battery-saving features To avoid dropped network connections if a handheld WiFi device, such as a scanner or a WiFi phone runs out of battery power, most equipment manufacturers offer some version of WMM battery saving.
  • Intrusion detection and prevention Network managers must design their WiFi networks to have adequate sensors to identify hackers and knock them off before they bring down the WiFi network.

Make sure your enterprise is prepared for the future surge to an all-wireless network. The steps toward achieving wireless redundancy may differ from normal redundancy efforts, but the end goal remains the same. "Most network managers are looking for network resiliency; that means creating a network that is resilient enough not to fail should a component fail or should a hacker attack the network," says Schatt.

Is the Internet the New WAN?

After close to two decades -- a lifetime in information technology -- the traditional corporate wide-area network (WAN) may be headed for the endangered-species list. The usurper: Internet-based virtual private networks (VPNs). Instead of depending on dedicated leased or owned lines, VPNs use a variety of technologies to carry data traffic over public networks in a secure and private manner. And as they are becoming increasingly competitive in terms of cost, flexibility and capacity, organizations of all sizes are taking notice.

However, migrating from leased lines to broadband isn't a slam dunk. IT managers must select VPN vendors with the appropriate levels of support and technology, and make sure the system meets the enterprise's needs for security and performance on an ongoing basis.

Expert Advice on Call
IT departments can choose between the do-it-yourself approach -- installing their own software and building their own VPNs in-house using a standard business broadband connection -- and purchasing VPN services from a carrier.

In general, the availability of in-house expertise is one of the most significant issues an IT department faces in implementing a VPN. IT managers should assess their department's skill sets and decide whether the in-house expertise exists to plan, design, implement and monitor a VPN. If such expertise is lacking, it makes more sense and may be more cost-effective to use a carrier-provided VPN.

In a recent survey by In-Stat, an industry analyst based in Scottsdale, Ariz., the key reasons enterprises gave for using carrier-provided VPNs were higher cost-benefit ratios and the desire to converge voice and data services on the same transport facilities. Converging voice with data offers opportunities to save overhead costs, but it can be technically challenging, since changes in data traffic can easily affect the quality of voice service and vice versa. "When carriers provide the IP VPNs, they bring their expertise to the table," explains In-Stat senior analyst Steve Hansen. (article continues)

But that doesn't mean they do all the work. Even with carrier-based VPN, the IT department may be in charge of much of the day-to-day administration. Typically, the vendor will be called upon to address issues beyond the scope of the in-house team's capabilities, such as solving difficult problems or assisting with planning. The vendor also usually takes responsibility for fundamental requirements, such as meeting service-level agreements for network availability and mean time to repair.

How Private is "Virtually Private"?
Security can be the decisive factor in choosing between DIY and carrier-based VPNs. Because security administration is complex, some DIY VPN implementations have proved to be less than fully secure. But even though carrier-based VPNs have rarely presented security problems, Hansen argues that "it's dangerous to say that security is not an issue." His advice: Find a carrier that will perform a security audit, offer advice about security vulnerabilities and suggest the best ways of addressing them in each particular situation.

Most carrier-provided VPNs use the IPsec protocol, which operates at the network layer, for security. However, a recent report by Infonetics Research in Campbell, Calif., found that enterprises with heightened security needs were increasingly choosing the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) protocol, which now accounts for about 21 percent of VPNs.

"SSL allows companies to limit user access to a few specific applications or data sources, and does so at the application layer, which is an improvement in security over IPsec," says Jeff Wilson, principal analyst for VPNs and security at Infonetics Research. Another benefit: SSL can be quickly set up as a disaster recovery solution, decreasing network downtime when other forms of access fail. (article continues)

Ensuring High Performance
Some IT managers are reluctant to move critical services from leased lines, concerned that a broadband IP connection may not provide the level of performance they require. Migrating from a DS3 leased line to a DSL broadband line with equivalent bandwidth may not present a problem, but migrating from a high-capacity fiber leased line might degrade performance unless fiber-based Internet access is available. "You have to make sure what you're moving is compatible with the network performance criteria of the network you're going to," Hansen says.

Bandwidth isn't the only requirement for high performance. In applications where quality of service (QoS) is the driving factor, such as voice, videoconferencing and an increasing number of data applications, Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) is emerging as the preferred standard. Many enterprises are finding that with a VPN based on MPLS, they can more easily meet service-level agreements for metrics like latency (the time it takes for a packet to get from one point to another), packet loss (signal degradation due to congestion) and other equally important components of QoS.

The bottom line: Implementing and managing a broadband-based network is not a trivial task. Before migrating enterprise applications from a dedicated-line infrastructure to an Internet-based VPN, you will need to address issues of security and network performance, and put a team in place -- using in-house or vendor resources, or some combination of the two -- that can set and meet appropriate service levels for the network.

Wikis in the Enterprise

Thanks to the explosive popularity of Wikipedia, many consumers are familiar with the concept of a wiki, a collaborative web page which can be viewed and edited by anyone with access to the Internet. Corporate adoption, however, has been much slower. Only 37% of enterprises currently use wikis, according to a recent study by The Nemertes Research Group Inc. in Mokena, Ill.

But while large organizations are concerned about security, management and compliance in a wiki world, smaller businesses are intrigued by what these infinitely customizable online databases can offer. Proponents claim wikis can improve productivity, reduce email overload, cut down on meetings and promote better knowledge-sharing. 

"Users need space to collaborate with other employees globally who are mobile and don't have the means to do so in the current IT infrastructure," says Jonathan Edwards, a research associate at Yankee Group, in Boston, Mass. "They're resorting to [wikis] because they are easy to use." (article continues)

Catching the Wiki Wave
"A lot of wiki use is still bottom-up. Someone -- often in IT -- sets one up and then people start to use it,'' explains Ben Gross, an analyst at San Francisco, Calif.-based Ferris Research.

For those interested in officially deploying a wiki at work, Edwards suggests starting with a small pilot group of people addressing a specific business problem. He cautions that it may take a while for wiki use to catch on. "It's a very different way to work," he says.

Technology is rarely the stumbling block. Wiki vendors, including Atlassian Software Systems, Socialtext, MindTouch and Media Wiki (the software that runs Wikipedia) offer onsite deployment within the firewall as well as hosted models.

The key to a wiki's success is user participation. "All too often when corporations look at Web 2.0 technologies, they think they have to get them, but wikis too often (article continues)

are left to rot because people aren't used to them," Edwards observes. "The cultural change is 90 percent; the technology is only 10 percent."

Gross agrees, saying the biggest barrier he has seen is user hesitation to create both structure and concept. "It's a shift for the users and managers because of the degree of openness, and because of the idea that you have a web page and you make changes on it and it's live."

Making Wikis Work
When are wikis a logical solution? Edwards recommends talking to employees about problems they're having with their current collaboration tools and discussing whether wikis might provide the answer. In order to encourage use, he also recommends putting work content on the wiki so that employees are forced to interact on the wiki rather than through e-mail.

Before creating a corporate wiki, Gross advises looking at examples of successful wikis. They tend to be used more by groups that work well together, he says. Including employees in the pilot process will help convince them that working on a wiki will be comfortable and productive. (article continues)

Newer wikis offer more access control in order to limit who can edit what. They are also getting better at letting users input content with standard HTML. Content that is highly formatted, like a complex Word document or spreadsheet, is not a great fit for a wiki. But a corporate-wide policies and procedures document that needs frequent updating is almost tailor-made for wiki technology.

Because their free-form nature can be off-putting and occasionally impractical, wikis need to be "groomed and linked well" in order to make information easy to find, says Gross. He suggests designating an employee to be responsible for ensuring the wiki is easy to navigate "because that doesn't always happen organically."

"Historically, it's been hard for people to edit web pages and keep them together,'' says Gross. "That's what wikis do well." Adds Edwards, "Once people realize how easy wikis are to use, they say 'Now I get it.'"