IBM to include net management tools with Merlin

Oracle Corp.'s new Network Computer (a very small, simple computer designed to attach to the Internet and run specialized Internet applications) posed a unique challenge to the trade press.

The problem was being able to coin a phrase that would adequately describe these special-purpose computers while differentiating them from the ambiguous class of machines we now refer to as PCs. The new machines were christened "thin clients," which accurately characterized their diminutive size and limited functionality. If Oracle's Network Computer is the model for the thin client, then IBM's next generation of OS/2 Warp (code-named Merlin) represents the antithesis: the "thick client."

Recently, IBM took a page out of Microsoft Corp.'s marketing book and began pre-announcing features due in its next-generation operating system, OS/2 Merlin. My last two columns [FCW, May 20, June 17] took advantage of IBM's new assertive marketing strategy by detailing some of the breakthrough technologies that Merlin will introduce (voice technology, embedded Java support and full object-oriented, voice-enabled Internet access). In this column, I will look at technologies that may make Merlin the preferred client operating system for network environments.

Challenge of Many Network Clients

One of the major challenges faced daily by federal network administrators is servicing and supporting the various network clients: DOS, Windows 3.1/95/NT, Macintosh and OS/2. While each platform provides support for the most popular networks, no one operating system or environment provides adequate tools to allow network administrators to adequately manage the network clients. IBM is positioning Merlin as the premier network client OS by providing tools that will allow network administrators to remotely diagnose problems, take control of the user's desktop and provide assistance to the user through interactive knowledge bases. IBM's forthcoming release of Merlin will provide these tools in a suite of software dubbed the Assistance Center.

Merlin's Assistance Center contains several technologies designed to enable network administrators to effectively diagnose and cure problems typically found on today's networked PCs. Using Merlin's Assistance Center software, system administrators can remotely view system configurations; collect statistics on the use of such key components as the CPU, memory and disk; and perform routine desktop maintenance across the network. Similar services are available today. However, each service requires the use of a separate third-party utility, which drives up the cost of systems management and increases its complexity. Merlin will be the first operating system to include these tools and present them to the end user as a single system folder.

Merlin will also be the first operating system to allow network users to automatically update Merlin's system components over the Internet. Today most software vendors provide file transfer protocol sites that require the user to log on, find, download and then manually install system updates. This process is frustrating at best and leaves open many possibilities for user error and subsequent system failures. Using Merlin, the user can easily double-click on the Retrieve Updates icon to gain a list of current system updates. The user then simply selects which upgrades are to be automatically downloaded and installed while the system simultaneously updates its logs to reflect the new release. System maintenance just doesn't get much easier than that.

IBM intends to redefine the desktop operating system through a series of technologies designed to enhance the user's interaction with the typical office PC. The company plans to employ voice recognition, Internet integration, full object orientation and now a complete suite of software designed to help network administrators and users maintain "healthy" network clients. While no one will argue that Oracle's tiny Network Computer is indeed a thin client, it certainly looks as if IBM is positioning Merlin to be the thick client operating system of choice.

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Rodgers is a computer specialist with the Army at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md. The opinions expressed are his own and do not represent any position of the government. You can reach him at os2guru@erols.com and read this column on Gateway at http://www.fcw.com.

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