Administer to your organization’s road warriors

Road warriors: Almost every office has them. They pop in to corporate headquarters every few months and show up at the holiday party. By the time you get to know them, you’re attending their retirement parties.

These users travel so much that they rarely connect their portable computers to the corporate LAN. So, how can you keep these users up-to-date regarding virus protection and application updates, backups, patches, and inventories?

Callisto Software’s Orbiter 4.0 provides seamless management of traveling computers and remote workstations. When computers that run the product’s client component log on to the network, Orbiter’s server component transmits script files to them (the product can also email these files). These script files execute jobs such as installing new virus definitions, defragmenting hard disks, applying application patches, and copying specific files to the corporate file server. Orbiter offers prebuilt jobs, but you can also use the job-packaging tool and custom scripting language to build your own. Orbiter Client reports job statuses, which Orbiter’s database tracks. Orbiter also offers a useful Microsoft Systems Management Server (SMS) plugin. This plugin integrates with the SMS console and lets you export the Orbiter database to SMS. You can then distribute SMS packages to traveling users.

You can install Orbiter Server on Pentium-based workstations or servers running Windows 2000 or Windows NT 4.0 Service Pack 4 (SP4) or later. You can install Orbiter Client on 486MHz workstations running Win2K, NT, or Windows 9x. Orbiter offers an additional client product that supports Palm devices, but I didn’t test this functionality.

I first installed Orbiter Server on a Dell 1.3GHz Pentium 4 workstation with a 20GB hard disk and 256MB of RAM, running Win2K Professional. A standard wizard walks you through installation and setup. The process is simple until the wizard asks you to make a database selection. A Microsoft Access database is the default; a Microsoft SQL Server database is your other option and a better choice for large Orbiter deployments. If you choose the SQL Server database, you need to specify the machine name of a SQL Server system on your network. For distributed administration and greater scalability, you can install Orbiter Server on more than one machine (then assign separate business groups to those machines) and store the databases on multiple SQL Server machines. Any Obiter Server machine can access any Orbiter database. For my simple test environment, I chose the Access database, which Orbiter Server builds in its install directory. The wizard then prompted me for a license key and a valid domain account or local account for the Orbiter Server service.

Finally, I selected Orbiter’s server-client communication method. I had two options. First, Orbiter Server can email jobs to Orbiter Clients (the product supports Microsoft Outlook, Lotus cc:Mail, and Lotus Notes platforms). I chose the second option: communicating with Orbiter Clients through TCP and UDP ports 2398. To permit dial-up and DSL clients to access Orbiter, you need to open some firewall ports (Callisto documents this process well). Because my test environment didn’t have a firewall, I didn’t need to open these ports.

I then installed Orbiter Client on my Hewlett-Packard (HP) Pentium III laptop, running Win98. The product installed without problems and required a rebooted. Although you can use SMS to roll out Orbiter Client, the machines to which you need to distribute the software don’t frequently connect to the network. Orbiter’s excellent documentation makes alternative recommendations for mass deployments (e.g., through email or logon scripts).

After the Orbiter Client installation and reboot, Orbiter Server automatically detected the client machine and added it to the New Clients folder. I then used Orbiter Server’s intuitive Orbiter Administrator GUI to create a client group (reviewgrp) to which I added my laptop (RC51), as Figure 1 shows.

To simulate mobile user conditions, I disconnected my laptop from the network. I then used Orbiter Administrator to queue up Orbiter’s prebuilt hardware inventory job and Symantec’s Norton AntiVirus scan job. I scheduled these jobs to run at 3:00 p.m. on the reviewgrp group that included my laptop. When I reconnected my laptop to the network at 3:01 p.m., Orbiter Server transmitted the jobs. Meanwhile, Orbiter Administrator’s job monitor showed the jobs’ statuses as Pending (because my laptop hadn’t yet completed the jobs and reported back to the Orbiter Server machine).

I then moved back to my laptop and accessed the Orbiter Client Console UI, which Figure 2 shows. The Orbiter Client Console showed that my laptop had received both jobs but that only the hardware inventory job was running. Job reporting is sparse, so I needed to investigate the reason for the Norton AntiVirus job failure: My laptop runs Norton AntiVirus’s corporate version, and Orbiter’s prebuilt job is for Norton AntiVirus 2000. You can easily overcome this type of problem by using the product’s job packager to build custom jobs—including a job that runs the corporate version of Norton AntiVirus.

Orbiter functionality is convenient for administrators, but you need to inform users about the possible inconveniences that Orbiter might cause them. If mobile users log on infrequently, Orbiter Server might bombard them with multiple jobs when they do log on. Although these jobs run in the background, running multiple jobs simultaneously can significantly slow operations and even render the client machine unusable for a short period of time.

Companies that have already invested in SMS can have the best of both worlds: They can use SMS to distribute software to desktops and the Orbiter plugin to distribute to mobile groups. Companies that can’t afford both SMS and Orbiter, and need to choose between the two, might find Orbiter the better solution. Although designed for managing remote machines, Orbiter’s unique functionalities are also useful for managing local LAN-based PCs. Because Orbiter’s job-processing is client-based, your servers get a rest. Products such as SMS and Symantec’s Norton System Center require more server-side power and are more expensive for rolling out management tasks to a large user-base.

If administered correctly, Orbiter can benefit local and remote administrators and users. Installation is easy, and the hardware requirements are minimal. The prebuilt jobs are useful, and the customized jobs are easy to script. Orbiter’s optional Palm support is also plus. However, you’ll need to educate mobile users about what to expect when they connect to the network and Orbiter runs a job. The price is $5000 per Orbiter Server and $100 per Windows OS Orbiter Client, with a minimum order of 1000 seats. (Palm OS Orbiter Client licenses are $30 each, with discounts for large orders.) Large companies wanting to cut the costs of maintaining a traveling laptop community will easily be able to justify the heavy initial investment that Orbiter requires. Orbiter’s unique place in the market and fear of the havoc that can result from unmanaged remote computers also helps justify the cost. After all, just one out-of-date virus definition file and one careless double-click on an attachment can let loose the next Anna Kournikova virus.

Orbiter 4.0
Contact: Callisto Software * 630-682-8200
Web: http://www.callisto.com
Price: $5000 for an Obiter Server license; Windows OS Orbiter Client licenses start at $120 each, with volume discounts available; Palm OS Orbiter Client licenses start at $38, with volume discounts available
Decision Summary:
Pros: Intuitive interface; available support for Palm OS devices; customizable functions; easy setup; useful integration with Microsoft Systems Management Server (SMS)
Cons: You need to educate mobile users about inconveniences that might result; the product is expensive