A bit too special?

Internet server appliances — simple-to-use computer alternatives that provide out-of-the-box Web services — promise to save space, cut costs and ease management headaches.

Unlike general-purpose servers, which can be used for a wider variety of tasks but require administrators to load and configure the software, Internet server appliances are built for only a few purposes, such as providing Web access, e-mail or security functions. The specialized role is central to their appeal.

That said, the appliances are not for everyone. Interviews with government and industry managers show that agencies aren't exactly swooning over them. Some agency officials want to stick with a common product/technology architecture and balk at the idea of buying specialized devices to quickly get on the Internet. Integration with centralized systems is also a concern.

The Air Force's Standard Systems Group isn't buying Internet appliances, according to a spokeswoman. The Air Force Materiel Command's Communications and Information Directorate, the Standard Systems Group's parent organization, emphasizes enterprisewide programs and requirements that encompass Internet access, e-mail and other Web- related services. Appliances aren't currently a fit.

"A niche appliance that might work very well and be easily deployed in one part of the department [may not] integrate well with the rest of the infrastructure," said Mark Melenovsky, an analyst with IDC. "It's harder to sell to larger enterprises where management of the whole infrastructure is paramount."

But neither are appliances a given at smaller information technology shops. At the government's Corporation for National and Community Service, remote users access the main server through a centrally located firewall, said Tom Hanley, CNS' deputy chief information officer. The organization does not deploy servers — or appliance servers, for that matter — in branch offices. CNS, which operates AmeriCorps and other programs, has offices in every state.

Appliances, however, may be just right for a niche role. Agencies with widely dispersed employees, for example, may tap appliances for shared Internet access and e-mail in field offices. Tight budgets may prompt organizations to deploy a low-cost Web-hosting appliance to maintain an Internet presence. And agencies hoping to conserve space may turn to specialized security appliances to consolidate various Internet-defense devices.

Appliance Advantages

"In organizations where they have space constraints, there is a lot of interest in moving from a general-purpose box to specialized appliances," said Vince Steckler, vice president of government sales at Symantec Corp. "A rack-mounted appliance has a smaller footprint than a general-purpose computer."

Through the General Services Administration schedule, Symantec offers its Gateway Security appliances, which combine firewall, anti-virus and intrusion-detection functions, along with other tools. (The appliances are unrelated to computer firm Gateway Inc.)

Small size is one reason to buy an appliance. A small price tag is another. An agency buying a combination security appliance can save 30 percent to 40 percent right off the top, according to Symantec executives. Customers can cut costs because they don't have to buy a more expensive general- purpose server, acquire the necessary software and integrate the components. They also avoid the expense of retaining experts to run the server.

The Clover Park School District in Lakewood, Wash., plans to test a Toshiba America Information Systems Inc. Magnia SG20 appliance at an elementary school, having already bought more than a dozen Magnia SG10s for its vocational education centers. George Luginbill, education support manager for the school district, said the SG20 has an education market price of $1,600 compared with $8,000 for a general-purpose server.

The district also saves on training and support costs. Luginbill said a technician might only need to spend 15 minutes with a teacher to explain system administration. "There is no training curve like there is going to be with a more expensive server," he said. Toshiba's Magnia line is available on the GSA schedule through DTP Micro Systems and iGov.com, among other government resellers.

Cost savings is also a key theme with IBM Corp.'s e-Server xSeries Hosting Appliance, which became available in April. The appliance includes more than 40 applications for building and managing Web sites and has a list price of $2,569. Lori Ford, appliance server marketing manager at IBM, said the device saves both time and money.

Number Crunching

The price might be right, but are appliances up to the task of supporting multiple users and providing adequate backup?

Appliances vary dramatically in terms of the number of users they can support. Some enterprise-oriented devices can serve thousands of users, while small-office solutions target offices with fewer than 250 users.

Symantec's Gateway appliance line includes three models, which support 50, 250 and 1,000 nodes, or connection points, respectively. Those numbers increase when high-end devices are clustered. Indeed, the company is comfortable with capacity approaching 8,000 nodes, said Greg Gotta, vice president of product delivery for Symantec.

Meanwhile, small-office products, such as eSoft Inc.'s InstaGate EX2 firewall/ virtual private network appliance, are designed to accommodate two to 250 nodes.

The auditor's office in Floyd County, Iowa, exemplifies the small-office solution category. There, an InstaGate EX2 appliance provides firewall and e-mail services for 17 users, said Sandy Hicks, the county's deputy auditor. Hicks said the office's computer support firm recommended the InstaGate product. She said the InstaGate appliance is simple to administer, adding that another county office will begin using InstaGate as well.

As for fault-tolerance, Symantec offers high-availability and load-balancing software as an option for its Gateway appliances. Customers can cluster up to eight appliances for backup purposes. In addition, Nokia Internet Communications offers high-availability components, backup software and redundant hardware (power supplies, hot swappable components, etc.) as part of its appliance products, said Steve Schall, Nokia's vice president of security solutions.

Good News, Bad News

Still, customer skepticism, shifting corporate strategies and the shaky economy have made life less than easy for appliance vendors. Whistle Communications and Ramp Networks Inc., for example, built Internet appliances, were subsequently acquired by IBM and Nokia respectively, and ultimately saw their product lines disbanded.

Rebel.com, a maker of Linux-based Internet appliances, folded in July 2001. The company's NetWinder appliance, however, has resurfaced under NetWinder Inc., which launched operations in February.

Security, however, is one bright spot in the Internet appliance sector.

Appliances that can combine firewall, VPN and other Internet-protection functions have started to catch on in the public sector, executives say. Vendors have responded with a bevy of integrated security appliances. Celestix Networks Inc., eSoft, Nokia and Symantec are among the vendors in this space. Symantec's Steckler said that a law enforcement customer has tested the company's Gateway appliance and is working on "full-scale deployment." Another government agency bought 125 firewall appliances and plans to buy 150 more, he said.

Winston Morton, chief executive officer of NetWinder, said he sees potential in deploying appliances as application servers — in addition to their traditional role as small-office Internet solutions.

"That's a faster-growing area," he said of the application server niche. NetWinder, he said, is working with application software vendors to pre-bundle their wares with NetWinder appliances, which can be remotely administered.

Morton said NetWinder has been sold into a number of government accounts. Alan Bechara, president and general manager of PC Mall Gov, said the company is considering adding NetWinder to its product roster.

As vendors retool, government customers have a range of devices and expanding feature sets (see box, Page 32) from which to choose. Appliances have the potential to emerge as low-cost, low-maintenance problem solvers, whether the point is providing security or offering basic Internet access to remote sites.

As with many things in life, it's all about picking the right spots.

Moore is a freelance writer based in Chantilly, Va.

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The best of both worlds

Appliances and general-purpose servers may appear to be at opposite ends of the computing spectrum. Yet each category has begun to take on some of the characteristics of the other.

"The appliance market and general-purpose server market are more or less converging in what they provide customers," said Mark Melenovsky, an analyst with IDC. Just a couple of years ago, customers had the black-and-white choice between a single-purpose appliance or a general-purpose server with little or no software preloaded, he said.

Many customers, however, didn't care for the "absolute, black-box aspect" of appliances and demanded more custom features, Melenovsky noted. Appliance vendors have responded accordingly with much more flexible appliances. Sun Microsystems Inc.'s latest Cobalt appliance, for example, is "almost a general- purpose server," according to Melenovsky. Sun debuted the Cobalt RaQ 550 server appliance in May.

Conversely, Hewlett-Packard Co.'s Compaq servers have pre-loaded systems-management functionality in a nod to the appliance vendor's ease-of-management claims. "They've taken the best aspects from each other," Melenovsky said.

In the future, the hardest thing about the appliance market may be distinguishing it from the rest of the server sector.

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Holding serve

An appliance server may fit the bill for agencies that have the following characteristics: * Many remote offices with Internet access and e-mail needs, but limited information technology staff to maintain general-purpose servers.

* A clutter of Internet security devices taking up too much space (combination security appliances include firewall and virtual private networking, among other capabilities).

* The need to reduce administrative overhead (appliances can be centrally managed and generally require little administrator training).

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