PC vendors push automated management

PC vendors push automated management

Hardware vendors are hoping to rescue slumping business PC sales with new automated IT management features.

In a bid to attract business users, improved IT-management capabilities will be a key element of Intel's launch of Weybridge vPro desktop PCs later this year, and in the 2008 version of their Montevina Centrino notebook PCs. It's just the latest sign that desktop management is coming of age.

Embedded IT management sounds duller than glossy sales hooks like Centrino's improved wireless connectivity and longer battery life, but corporate IT managers have been asking for this feature for years. Faced with applying a huge flow of software patches and virus shields to large fleets of corporate PCs, they want the computers themselves to do more of the work.

PC vendors see the technology as a chance to boost slumping sales in the saturated U.S. commercial segment. The industry is increasingly dependent on sales of notebook PCs and emerging markets, according to Gartner. Even Microsoft's January launch of the Windows Vista OS has had very little impact on corporate sales.

In March, an industry standards group called the Distributed Management Task Force unveiled a replacement for its aging ASF (alert standard format) approach to IT management. The new DASH standard (desktop and mobile architecture for systems management hardware) allows IT managers to diagnose and repair computers, even PCs that are too sick to boot up.

"It is a huge leap from where we were before, just being able to wake up a box. Now you can get BIOS information, an inventory, do OS management," said Jack Story, chief technologist for the infrastructure portfolio at Electronic Data Systems (EDS).

"We see the promise of embedded management, and now we're building intelligence into that environment. With higher levels of automation and awareness, the device can do more proactively," Story said.

EDS has been offering automated IT management to its mid-range and large corporate clients by providing computers that incorporate Intel's Averill business management platform chipsets. The chipsets include Intel's Active Management Technology (AMT). The AMT features, which comply with the older ASF specs, have given EDS a marketing advantage in keeping customers happy, he said.

"Customers don't necessarily go out and ask for these capabilities, because we tend to ask for what we know about. So this represents a game changer," he said.

Other IT vendors also see a big market opportunity in automated management. Soon after the DASH launch, Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) launched a "SIMFIRE" software tool that allows component vendors to test whether their products meet the new specification. Dell Inc. said its future OptiPlex desktops would use the standard, too.

Intel will push automated management with its DASH-compliant Weybridge upgrade to its vPro desktop IT management platform in the second half of 2007, adding embedded security and virtualization to the bundle of a Core 2 Duo processor, firmware and chipset. Intel will also add limited management features in the May launch of the Centrino Pro, the business version of its new Santa Rosa Centrino bundle, and make that platform DASH-compliant in 2008 with the Montevina Centrino upgrade.

Of course, computers using the DASH standard will not permeate the corporate environment instantly, since users must buy new PC platforms to get it, as opposed to simply uploading software. But businesses will see quick savings once they adopt it, Intel said.

Those changes will be largely invisible to users, but have allowed IT managers using vPro desktops to save an average of 40 percent of the cost of PC management and labor cost, said Intel spokeswoman Chris Dotts. The savings come primarily from reducing the number of deskside visits to diagnose and repair broken PCs, Dotts said.

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