Standardizing remote desktop management

The workplace PC's rapid evolution from novelty to crucial device has left many IT departments struggling to deal with the shift to a PC-based distributed computing model. Distribution translates into higher support costs; IT industry analysts have calculated annual support costs as high as $10,000 per networked PC. These numbers have IT managers scrambling for ways to reduce costs while keeping up with an expanded workload. No simple solutions exist for the complex balancing act of cost vs. support, but help is on the way.

Intel, in cooperation with other hardware and software manufacturers, continues to promote the open-industry specification Wired for Management. WfM, which has a baseline history dating from 1997, calls for Intel-based PCs to include central-management capabilities that you can exploit directly or through desktop management applications.

The five key components of the standard's baseline specification are Instrumentation, Preboot Execution Environment (PXE), Remote Wake-Up, Power Management (i.e., Advanced Configuration and Power Interface—ACPI), and Problem Resolution, which is new with the standard's most recent specification (WfM 2.0). WfM standards-based PCs offer a powerful new level of remote desktop management that can potentially reduce total cost of ownership (TCO). For more information about WfM 2.0, see the WfM Web site at http://www.intel.com/ial/wfm.

For an administrator, the ability to gather BIOS revision-level, NIC, memory, and hard disk information without visiting each machine in a distributed environment is a huge time-saver. WfM's Instrumentation specification requires standards-based PCs to include a System Management BIOS (SMBIOS) that provides standardized information about internal system components. A Management Information Format (MIF) file contains this information; you can use a Desktop Management Interface (DMI) agent to query the MIF. This type of technology has been in use for some time and is the primary means of performing remote hardware inventories. Microsoft Systems Management Server (SMS) is one of several management applications that collect instrumentation data.

With PXE, you can configure a new PC for an end user without ever seeing the PC. PXE relies on the host PC's NIC (or on the NIC and BIOS of PCs with motherboard-embedded NICs). Essentially, a PXE-capable PC can boot from the network and perform tasks regardless of the existence or status of the local hard disk's OS. Windows 2000's (Win2K's) Remote Installation Service (RIS) leverages this technology but only scratches the surface of PXE's capabilities. Desktop management applications, such as ON Technology's ON Command Comprehensive Client Management (CCM), use PXE to perform BIOS flashing, partition and format disk drives, and install OSs. (For more information about ON Command, see Tom Iwanski, "ON Command CCM 4.5," March 2000.) Altiris eXpress is another desktop management tool that exploits PXE. From the Windows 2000 Magazine Lab's perspective, PXE is a great tool to help you perform remote tasks.

For those of you concerned about the security of PXE, WfM 2.0 introduces Boot Integrity Services (BIS). This feature lets you use digital signatures to authenticate downloaded boot images. You then can use image authentication to guarantee that systems booting from the network use only IT-approved boot images.

Remote Wake-Up lets you remotely power up network PCs to ensure that all PCs—even those that are powered off—will participate in scheduled management tasks. A specified wake-up event, such as the receipt of a network wake-up frame or AMD's Magic Packet, triggers Remote Wake-Up. WfM-enabled PCs implement Remote Wake-Up through the NIC and BIOS. A cable and three-pin connector link the NIC and the motherboard, although systems with PCI Local Bus version 2.2 receive the wake-up signal from the NIC directly through the bus. Many desktop management applications let you schedule tasks for off-hours, when you won't interrupt end users or run into heavy network traffic. You can use these applications with Remote Wake-Up to help reduce energy costs and retain complete after-hours network access.

ACPI brings hardware and peripheral power management under the control of OSs such as Win2K and Windows 98. ACPI is the latest evolution in power management strategies and moves away from strictly time-based power management calculations. This WfM component offers complete power consumption monitoring and provides power to devices on an as-needed basis. The net result is reduced costs through reduced power consumption—a concept that isn't lost on large organizations with thousands of PCs.

At press time, more than 30 major PC manufacturers build boxes to WfM specifications—good news for administrators interested in implementing WfM-based desktop management. In most instances, you can specify WfM-enabled PCs without compromising on price or manufacturer preference. For your legacy systems, a WfM-enabled NIC from 3Com or Intel can provide out-of-the-box functionality to meet most WfM specifications. But building WfM-enabled PCs into your network is only the first step. You also need a quality desktop management application to fully leverage the standard's component capabilities and reduce support costs. Several players (e.g., Altiris, Computer Associates—CA, Hewlett-Packard—HP, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, ON Technology, PLATINUM Technology, Xpoint Technologies) exist in the desktop management application field, but none provide one application that covers the breadth of WfM's capabilities, and many packages are expensive and difficult to implement.

We in the Windows 2000 Magazine Lab think that WfM takes a big step toward lowering support costs and assisting beleaguered administrators. The standard lays the groundwork to do more with less. We suspect that more expansive, less expensive desktop management tools will soon be available to complement the hardware innovations that WfM's components provide. When hardware and software finally come together to form a true remote desktop management solution, end users will start smiling more often—and administrators might start getting home on time.