Use a wireless device to administer your network

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The negative impact that downtime can have on a company has never been more apparent. Companies that don't have an around-the-clock staff of experts must rely on some type of paging scheme to inform an administrator when a problem arises. The administrator then has to gain access to the appropriate system to troubleshoot and resolve the problem. Several vendors are trying to make life easier for overburdened administrators by offering wireless management solutions that feature problem-notification, troubleshooting, and problem-resolution capabilities from a wireless handheld device.

This Buyer's Guide lists products that support an array of devices as well as products that support only one or two device types. If you plan to leverage an investment you've already made in wireless handheld devices, make sure that the product you choose supports the device you have and that the vendor is committed to maintaining support for that device in the future.

The listed vendors have taken several different approaches to enable interactive capabilities in their products. The most prevalent approach is the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) browser interface. The WAP standard lets an administrative tool communicate with devices such as cell phones and handheld computers from different manufacturers. (For details about the WAP standard, see Tao Zhou, "Going Wireless," March 15, 2001.) The Go.Web service from GoAmerica Communications lets Research In Motion (RIM) handheld device owners enjoy the same type of browser-based functionality that the WAP interface provides. Opalis Software's email add-on product for OpalisRobot takes the unique approach of letting you email action request messages from your wireless device to OpalisRobot, which then carries out the requested management tasks.

When you're evaluating products to purchase, think about the specific tasks you need to be able to perform. Simply having a good connection and a nice interface isn't enough and will do little to console you when you have to drive to your workplace in the middle of the night to solve a problem. When you start surveying the capabilities of different products, you can easily become overenthusiastic about the possibilities.

Before you make a purchase decision, list the functions that the product you choose must be able to perform. Features I consider mandatory include the ability to shut down and restart servers, start and stop applications and services, and execute commands. Other features that increase the effectiveness of these products include print server management, user management, configurable thresholds and alerts, network troubleshooting utilities (e.g., Ping, Tracert), and file-system access. If you want to be able to audit administrative tasks performed from wireless devices, look for a product that performs the logging necessary to provide an audit trail.

Given the range of devices, features, and pricing, you might have difficulty figuring out the Return on Investment (ROI) for different solutions. Start by listing the types of problems that have historically caused you to take administrative action in your environment, then examine whether you could have resolved those problems more quickly and efficiently by using the wireless management tools you're evaluating. Finally, look at the frequency with which you and others in your support staff can expect to use the tool's remote capabilities, then determine what that tool is worth to you and your organization.