Disks, adieu: Software distribution goes electronic

When the Air Force Personnel Center needed to distribute updates to its myriad personnel programs on servers around the globe workers used to have to log in to each server post the data and then rely on individual offices to download unzip and install the upgrades by hand.

No more. Now the center relies on electronic software distribution (ESD) to get the job done.

Faced with the imminent rollout of a brand-new Defense Civilian Personnel Data System to some 400 servers worldwide managers at the San Antonio Texas facility knew they needed to change their methods. "We could send small files over the old technology but now we're getting into megabytes in size " said Mike Zimmerman chief of technical assistance at the Air Force Personnel Center.

"Part of our charter is not only to get releases out but [to] get them out in a timely manner " said John Margetson the lead software distributor for the center. "We started looking at distribution packages for a faster better way to get the customer up and running." In particular the organization was shopping for a way to achieve automated simultaneous installation along with configuration control and other network-management features Margetson said. The center eventually settled on AutoXfer from Platinum Technology Inc.

The Air Force Personnel Center is just one of a growing number of government agencies that are turning to ESD for economic and organizational reasons.

Proponents say ESD can pay for itself in administrative costs alone as applications software upgrades and operating system adjustments that once had to be installed via floppy disk and sneakernet can now be delivered to individual desktops with the push of a button.

A 1997 International Data Corp. white paper titled "Creating Business Value From Integrated System Management" found that information technology managers who used the ESD components of enterprise management systems reported substantial savings in staff hours. Monthly savings in software installation and upgrade time for example averaged 16 hours of staff time per 100 users which translated into annual savings that averaged $17 000 per 100 users.

Productivity Gains

ESD's cost-saving automation capabilities dovetail with the latest burst of total-cost-of-ownership awareness within federal markets said Brian Nightingale vice president of civilian programs and sales in the Technology and Systems group of BTG Inc. Fairfax Va. "Seat management is a major component of the [General Services Administration request for proposals] that's on the street " he said "and ESD is a definite way of cutting administrative costs."

Organizationally ESD tools give network managers new levels of control. Beyond physically distributing software and upgrades to servers and desktops enterprise and midrange ESD programs help network administrators better determine who gets what software when and ensure that all users are working with the same version of a package.

For example managers can schedule monitor and roll back software and upgrades from a central location define and modify application configurations from a single point and track software installed in the field by version installation date location and other criteria.

For all its power ESD is "no silver bullet in and of itself " said Steven McDowall vice president of software distribution at Platinum Oakbrook Terrace Ill. Successfully reversing individual users' tendency toward "free-for-all software grabbing" depends as much upon an organization's policies and procedures as it does upon a particular software-delivery system McDowall said.

Range of Options

In the high end of the market client/server-based enterprise management packages include ESD components alongside management modules such as discovery network management event notification performance and accounting help desk inventory and asset management and workload management.

Federal agencies often are drawn to heavy hitters such as Computer Associates International Inc.'s CA-Unicenter and Tivoli Systems Inc.'s Tivoli Management Environment 10 as well as other integrated suites for their strong support of multiplatform environments and their myriad network-management bells and whistles.

"If you just need to get the software out there there are a lot of great file-based utilities or file-transfer utilities that can assist in the process " said Mike Miller head of federal sales at Computer Associates Reston Va.

Where CA-Unicenter sets itself apart Miller said is with such features as auditability and recoverability. "How many copies do you have out there? What if you ship the wrong version?" he said. CA-Unicenter's feedback components allow managers to quickly answer such questions and enact solutions when needed he added.

The Drug Enforcement Administration selected Tivoli for similar reasons: its multiplatform support its ability to centrally define and alter installation configurations and the other integrated functions in its management suite according to Chuck Faughnan a senior member of the technical staff at Performance Engineering Corp. a Fairfax Va.-based contractor to DEA. The agency uses Tivoli's software-distribution component to deliver mission-critical and office automation applications to some 200 servers and 10 000 or so desktops.

But the middle of the market - where Microsoft Corp.'s Systems Management Server (SMS) Hewlett-Packard Co.'s OpenView Intel Corp.'s LANDesk and a host of other products reside - offers a similar level of distribution monitoring and control said Ray Paquet a research director at the Gartner Group Burlington Mass.

The difference between market segments is not in the amount or type of management features but in the variety and number of computers supported Paquet said. "For straight electronic software distribution there's no more control in higher end than lower " he said. "Where there's a difference is in scalability. On the high end you can accommodate a much more heterogeneous situation. SMS and products like that can handle the clients but not the servers."

"We use SMS in tandem with Tivoli " said Thomas Bridges a corporate mini/LAN specialist with the Internal Revenue Service Austin Texas. The agency had invested in Microsoft's BackOffice and already had a certain number of SMS licenses on hand but it needed a product with more reach. "SMS is only [for the Windows NT/Intel platform]. I have Unixware NetWare NT Unix minis Unix desktops and AIX desktops " Bridges said. Mainframes minis and NT servers are handled by Tivoli and then the software to be distributed is handed off to SMS.

For organizations willing to hand off control entirely to the end user - and for those who need only to distribute upgrades to commercially available products - there are truly inexpensive but functional utilities such as CyberMedia Inc.'s Oil Change.

This tool automatically logs on via the Internet to CyberMedia's data bank and downloads upgrades bug fixes or patches to whatever commercial programs the user has specified. The program also makes use of "push" technology to notify users when such upgrades have become available giving them the option of downloading the new software.

"Oil Change allows [management information systems organizations] to push low-level issues - which can make up 80 percent of help-desk calls - out to the end user so they can focus on bigger issues " said Geoff Stilley CyberMedia's vice president for sales and marketing.

software.net Corp. is another company addressing the need to track brand-name software upgrades. The software.net service a CyberSource Corp. subsidiary that made its mark selling software online recently signed a contract to deliver some $50 million worth of Microsoft software over the Internet to the Defense Logistics Agency.

software.net is hoping the landmark DLA agreement and a similar federal contract last year - a $1.3 million deal with the National Imagery and Mapping Agency - will spur other agencies to sign on. "Because the new software is delivered via the Internet but shipping time is eliminated [savings in] download times on files&hellip can be quite substantial " according to a NIMA official who asked not to be identified.

Still control and security concerns remain. "NIMA is not doing ESD in its purest sense " the official said. "We are not allowing users to access the Web site directly and install their own software."

Internet Concerns

software.net officials admit that the first step outside the firewall can be daunting psychologically. "Two areas that inhibited growth initially were bandwidth and Internet paranoia " according to Kendall Fargo director of sales and marketing at software.net San Jose Calif. "We can't fix the Internet but our caching servers are a good solution."

Agencies that have recovered from Internet paranoia can choose from a handful of push packages that allow users to receive commercial patches or deliver their own in-house applications straight to end users over the Internet. For example Marimba Inc. this summer announced UpdateNow an extension to its Castanet channel system that can deliver Java and non-Java applications inside and outside the network firewall. The push part of the technology allows managers to create self-managing self-updating applications that automatically accept and install updates as they are delivered.

UpdateNow makes the most sense for customers who want to deliver more than just traditional client/server business applications said Kim Polese Marimba's chief executive officer. "Computer Associates and Tivoli do a great job of managing legacy applications within the enterprise. The new challenge is delivering full-blown network applications and getting outside the firewall."

Delaying Enterprise Deployment

While smaller organizations or department-level groups may be ready and willing to try such an approach enterprise-level deployment may still be down the road observers said.

"Push [technology] by itself is not a terribly interesting issue for enterprise customers who want control over licensing " said Jeff Tarter publisher of the "Softletter" industry newsletter in Watertown Mass. "Often you need more interaction than straight push provides."

Even so there's no denying that many federal agencies eventually would like to use the Internet their intranets or a combination of the two to deliver software to end users. But for now many agencies are sticking with proven technologies and networks before taking the Net plunge.

"A couple years out we'll be looking at Web technology for software distribution but for now the [client/server] products will be our mainstay " the Air Force's Zimmerman said. "We need to have all our ducks in place before we transition to a Web-type delivery environment."

-- Mayor is a free-lance writer based inBeverly Mass. specializing in information technology. She can be reached at [email protected]

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At A Glance

Status: Electronic software distribution is gaining ground everywhere - especially in large heterogeneous computing environments - as a means of lowering administrative costs.

Issues: Popular network-management packages get the job done inexpen-sively but can't always work across heterogeneous environments. Enterprise-management suites bring the highest levels of control and scalability but at a cost.

Outlook: Very good. The demand for lower costs and higher degrees of manageability should help continue ESD's growth with Internet intranet and blended solutions becoming more popular as confidence in Web security improves.


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