Service Appliances as Disruptive Technology?

by Beth Cohen

Will network appliances unhorse the traditional admin? In more and more organizations, single-purpose boxes are making inroads thanks to simplicity and low cost.

You have just started your new consulting practice. Finding clients and making money are your main priorities, not managing computer systems. Hiring a computer consultant is too expensive and your most technical person would rather work with clients than mess with the networks. Imagine being able to plug an inexpensive box on your Internet connection, click a few commands into a Web interface and instantly all of the standard services you need to manage your business - mail, web, DHCP, firewall, etc. - are fully connected and operational.

Just a fantasy? Not only is this technology real, but it is starting to revolutionize how business does IT. "You can take the Gallantry GW400 box and use it for everything and not bother with any other servers. It offers 11 standard network services right in the box," says John Wood, VP of Product Development at Gallantry Technologies, Inc. "You can buy this system from CompUSA or Fry's and be in business tomorrow. The target audience for these systems is the 5 - 50 person company with a part-time IT person, but the systems can actually handle up to about 250 people. These companies are very price sensitive," notes Wood. The entry level Gallantry system starts at $500.

When the average time to configure these boxes is about 30 minutes and maintenance takes 30 minutes per month, there is not much need for a skilled system administrator on-site. Where does this leave the systems administrators and the VARs of the world? Well, I would be looking at sharpening up some alternate skills because these appliances boxes are the next disruptive technology.

What are network service appliances?
Can a purpose built computer device be revolutionize IT? Sure, we are talking about network service appliances, an old concept packaged in an entirely new way. These boxes have the same potential to change the technical and business landscape as the Web did over the past 5 years. Service appliances are designed to be incredibly reliable, easy to install and use. "If something breaks, it either tells you that it has failed or the light stops blinking. There is no failure analysis other than a power cycle or reset switch," comments Bob Webber, senior systems administrator at Channing Labs, Harvard Medical School.

Back in ancient history when people configured the network services servers by hand, it could take days to build a firewall. Unless you were in an environment with many systems, it was not worth the time to write shell scripts to automate the process. Most systems administrators in those days were gurus, so it was not a problem but it was slow and expensive. A computer was an all-purpose tool administrators built to be many things, a firewall, NFS server, or a router, whatever was required to do the job.

Any configured system that works with little or no maintenance lends itself to the "appliance" treatment. While a general-purpose computer is more like a stove that can be used for a large number of applications; think of a service appliance as an extremely specialized computer that only does one thing very well, the computer equivalent of a bagel toaster. For example, it only delivers mail or only handles DCHP requests. Of course, underneath all of these systems are actual operating systems (Linux is a favorite because it tends to comply with and support open standards), hardware and applications, but they are kept well hidden from the users. The most common interface is Web-based, it is easy to use, and no training is required. The original service appliance is, of course, the router. Routers are really computers that receive IP packets and send them to other routers extremely well.

User experiences
"These systems are so easy to install and configure. My bread and butter small business customers love their reliability and simplicity," says Craig Meritz, president of Meritz TeleNet, a solutions provider for small businesses in the Philadelphia area. He has been selling the RampNet firewall and router products, acquired and now sold under the Nokia brand name, for several years. "This product separated the Internet access from the file server for the first time which instantly enhanced the network reliability."

Although there are many great reasons to purchase service appliances, there are also downsides. "You must be able to trust that the manufacturer has architected the system correctly because you are unlikely to ever find out (except the hard way) that they configured it wrong," warns Webber. He goes on to note, "because it is a black box, if the configuration is even slightly unusual you might need to call the manufacturer for service. People buy these things because they are not technically savvy. If the company network configuration is non-standard, they will be frustrated."

Webber ran into a problem when he installed a network appliance, a file server, in a dual-homed network for redundancy, something the system was never designed to handle. He had problems with an unstable ARP cache, but he could not access the hard-coded ARP configurations to fix the issue. "As a systems administrator it was tempting to try to figure out what was wrong rather than pick up the phone and call service", Webber laments.

Despite the slower economy and the dotcom bust, there are a flood of new companies and products in the appliance market. "This technology has not really penetrated the small and mid-sized business markets yet. We have been in business for five years, selling boxes for four years and we find we are still educating our audience," reports Gallantry's Wood.

There is now a wide range of products to choose from depending on your particular needs. Plug it in, turn it on, and in less than 15 minutes, you can deploy 40GB to 1.4TB of storage on your network. Network Appliance and Quantum's SNAPservers fill the network attached storage (NAS) niche. Larger companies are paying $7K for a DNS/DCHP appliance from InfoBlox. An Evanston, IL start-up selling a new turn-key appliance under the name DNS One is more appropriate for a mid-sized company. Irvine, CA based Linksys is cleaning up in the SOHO and private home network market by offering appliances that serve as routers, firewalls, and DHCP servers for under $100. For more specialized needs, Radware, Inc. offers appliances that provide full IP routing and Layer 4 through Layer 7 switching otherwise known as firewall and Web server load balancers.

As price points for appliances have fallen dramatically, the enormous amount of effort and cost to care for general purpose servers is becoming ever less attractive to the business community. Now that networking is ubiquitous, corporations and individuals will find the reduced administration of network appliances well worth investing in.

Beth Cohen is president of Luth Computer Specialists, Inc., a consulting practice specializing in IT infrastructure for smaller companies. She has been in the trenches supporting company IT infrastructure for over 20 years in a number of different fields including architecture, construction, engineering, software, telecommunications, and research. She is currently pursuing an Information Age MBA from Bentley College and writing a book about IT for the small enterprise.

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This article was originally published on Wednesday May 15th 2002