Software distribution tools find a home on the network

Software distribution tools find a home on the network


Software distribution is one management technology that has found widespread success, and current users are eager to share tips for capitalising on it.

With software distribution tools, corporations can prepare their PCs in less time and ensure that clients have consistent configurations. By distributing software over the Internet, some companies are reaching into homes and businesses with new services.

In general, software distribution tools consist of a central distribution server and agents installed on clients. Once a network manager tells the server which machines should receive software, the server sends the software to the agents, which in turn install the software on the target clients.

"Two years ago, what we're doing now just wouldn't have worked," says Ira Dworkin, chief technology officer for Passport New Media, a startup in Los Angeles. The company is about to launch an Internet-based service called Your Own World, which screens Internet content for children.

To run the service, end users will need client software that takes up about 150MB of space on their PCs. The initial software will be packaged on CD-ROMs, but upgrades will be distributed via the Internet using a tool from Marimba.

Dworkin says that with the majority of users having 56Kbps modems, that's sufficient bandwidth to handle software downloads as needed.

Your Own World needs a lot of software distribution features, but Dworkin acknowledges that many companies might not have so many requirements. "If you're just going to be updating files that are 1 or 2MB in size once every week or so, you may not need a solution that does byte-level differencing," he says. Byte-level differencing is a bandwidth-saving technique for updating files in which only the bytes that have changed are altered.

Another feature that some tools have is the ability to pick up software downloads right where they left off, in case the connection is lost in the middle of the download. If the endstations are always connected to a LAN, this feature is unnecessary, Dworkin points out. Plus, if all downloads are behind a firewall, heavy security is probably not needed.

Watch out for speed bumps

On the corporate side, one of the biggest advantages of automated software distribution is that PCs can be updated rapidly, says Jim Bearce, network engineer at US-based The Copeland Companies, a group of companies that focuses on retirement planning.

Before deploying a software distribution tool from ON Technology at the beginning of the year, Bearce's organisation could set up about three or four clients per week. After installing the product, the team was building between 15 and 40 machines per day, Bearce says. Plus, the clients are configured the same way, which makes any problems easier to troubleshoot.

However, that pace proved to be detrimental. Copeland cut corners in training and preparation in order to roll out about 800 clients in just over three months. Plus, the organisation "started using [the software distribution tool] in a way ON Technology really hadn't planned on", Bearce says.

The problem was that many of the endstations were remote laptops with slow connections. ON Technology's software was geared toward PCs with fixed connections to a network. "We came up with our own workarounds and ran into a couple of problems," Bearce says. Specifically, the database with software and hardware information would get corrupted under some circumstances.

ON Technology has since released a version of its ON Command CCM aimed at better updating remote users. Bearce says Copeland will continue to use the software to roll out upgrades from Windows 95 to NT.

Bearce says the best success he has had with software distribution was when he planned adequately. "Planning and testing - that should be three- quarters of your work right there, and the rollout will be very simple after that," he says.

Customisation required

Western Resources uses a Tivoli tool to distribute all kinds of software, including 3270 terminal emulation software and PeopleSoft applications, to its 1500 desktops. The electric utility company wanted to cut down on the cost of sending a technician to each desktop to install software. While the company hasn't reduced its staff, that same staff is handling two to three times as many requests as it did before the Tivoli tool was installed 18 months ago.

One requirement the company had was the customisation of the software distribution tool to its own environment. "That in itself can overwhelm you," says Kevin Winters, senior manager for network control at the company.

"Tivoli's software is a little weak in logging, so you can build your own scripts to deliver the logging you want," he says. The flexibility to adapt the software is key, Winters adds.

Another factor to keep in mind is what end users will have to go through to get their software updated.

Charles Schwab recently introduced a service for active investors that uses software installed on a client. The software is distributed to the investors via CD-ROMs, but updates are sent over the Internet. Because the software is being distributed to non-technical users, the company wanted to ensure the software updates were easy to access, says Vincent Phillips, vice president of electronic brokerage technology at Charles Schwab.

The software is also set up to give users the option of postponing updates if they don't want their computers tied up at a particular time. Plus, Charles Schwab is trying to make sure its updates take less than one minute over a 56Kbps modem connection, and the company has been limiting updates to about one per month.

The biggest key to success with software distribution is "don't cut corners", says Scott Feuless, vice president of technology operations at ebaseOne, an application service provider. The company sells access to applications, and it tracks how the clients on its customers' networks are configured.

"This is a technology for a solid technical team with good resources at its disposal," he says. "Doing truly robust software distribution is a significant challenge."

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