Saturday, June 15, 2024

Service Appliances as Disruptive Technology?

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being able to plug an inexpensive box on your Internet connection, click a
few commands into a Web interface and instantly all of the standard
services you need to manage your business – mail, web, DHCP, firewall, etc.
– are fully connected and operational.

Just a fantasy? Not only is this technology real, but it is starting to
revolutionize how business does IT. “You can take the Gallantry GW400 box
and use it for everything and not bother with any other servers. It offers
11 standard network services right in the box,” says John Wood, VP of
Product Development at Gallantry Technologies, Inc.

“You can buy this
system from CompUSA or Fry’s and be in business tomorrow. The target
audience for these systems is the 5-50 person company with a part-time IT
person, but the systems can actually handle up to about 250 people. These
companies are very price sensitive,” notes Wood. The entry-level Gallantry
system starts at $500.

When the average time to configure these boxes is about 30 minutes and
maintenance takes 30 minutes per month, there is not much need for a
skilled system administrator on-site. Where does this leave the systems
administrators and the VARs of the world? Well, I would be looking at
sharpening up some alternate skills because these appliances boxes are the
next disruptive technology.

What are network service appliances?

Can a purpose built computer device be revolutionize IT? Sure, we are
talking about network service appliances, an old concept packaged in an
entirely new way. These boxes have the same potential to change the
technical and business landscape as the Web did over the past 5 years.
Service appliances are designed to be incredibly reliable, easy to install
and use.

“If something breaks, it either tells you that it has failed or
the light stops blinking. There is no failure analysis other than a power
cycle or reset switch,” says Bob Webber, senior systems administrator
at Channing Labs, Harvard Medical School.

Back in ancient history, when people configured the network
services servers by hand, it could take days to build a firewall.
Unless you were in an environment with many systems, it was not worth
the time to write shell scripts to automate the process.

Most systems
administrators in those days were gurus, so it was not a problem, but
it was slow and expensive. A computer was an all-purpose tool
administrators built to be many things, a firewall, NFS server, or a
router, whatever was required to do the job.

Any configured system that works with little or no maintenance
lends itself to the “appliance” treatment. While a general-purpose
computer is more like a stove that can be used for a large number of
applications; think of a service appliance as an extremely specialized
computer that only does one thing very well, the computer equivalent
of a bagel toaster.

For example, it only delivers mail or only
handles DCHP requests. Of course, underneath all of these systems are
actual operating systems (Linux is a favorite because it tends to
comply with and support open standards), hardware and applications,
but they are kept well hidden from the users.

The most common
interface is Web-based, it is easy to use, and no training is
required. The original service appliance is, of course, the router.
Routers are really computers that receive IP packets and send them to
other routers extremely well.

User experiences

“These systems are so easy to install and configure. My bread and butter
small business customers love their reliability and simplicity,” says Craig
Meritz, president of Meritz TeleNet, a solutions provider for small
businesses in the Philadelphia area.

He has been selling the RampNet
firewall and router products, acquired and now sold under the Nokia brand
name, for several years. “This product separated the Internet access from
the file server for the first time which instantly enhanced the network

Although there are many great reasons to purchase service
appliances, there are also downsides. “You must be able to trust that
the manufacturer has architected the system correctly because you are
unlikely to ever find out (except the hard way) that they configured
it wrong,” warns Webber.

“Bbecause it is a black
box, if the configuration is even slightly unusual you might need to
call the manufacturer for service,” he says. “People buy these things because
they are not technically savvy. If the company network configuration
is non-standard, they will be frustrated.”

Webber ran into a problem when he installed a network appliance, a
file server, in a dual-homed network for redundancy, something the
system was never designed to handle. He had problems with an unstable
ARP cache, but he could not access the hard-coded ARP configurations
to fix the issue.

“As a systems administrator it was tempting to try
to figure out what was wrong rather than pick up the phone and call
service”, Webber laments.


Despite the slower economy and the dotcom bust, there are a flood of new
companies and products in the appliance market. “This technology has not
really penetrated the small and mid-sized business markets yet. We have
been in business for five years, selling boxes for four years and we find
we are still educating our audience,” reports Gallantry’s Wood.

There is now a wide range of products to choose from depending on
your particular needs. Plug it in, turn it on, and in less than 15
minutes, you can deploy 40GB to 1.4TB of storage on your network.

Network Appliance and Quantum’s SNAPservers fill the network attached
storage (NAS) niche. Larger companies are paying $7K for a DNS/DCHP
appliance from InfoBlox.

An Evanston, Ill. start-up selling a new
turn-key appliance under the name DNS One is more appropriate for a
mid-sized company. Irvine, Calif.-based Linksys is cleaning up in the
SOHO and private home network market by offering appliances that serve
as routers, firewalls, and DHCP servers for under $100.

For more
specialized needs, Radware, Inc. offers appliances that provide full
IP routing and Layer 4 through Layer 7 switching otherwise known as
firewall and Web server load balancers.

As price points for appliances have fallen dramatically, the enormous
amount of effort and cost to care for general purpose servers is becoming
ever less attractive to the business community. Now that networking is
ubiquitous, corporations and individuals will find the reduced
administration of network appliances well worth investing in.

Beth Cohen is president of Luth Computer Specialists, Inc., a consulting
practice specializing in IT infrastructure for smaller companies.

This article was first published on CrossNodes, an site.

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