Appliances reshape IT landscape

Looking for a can't-miss enterprise trend? I have just one word for you: appliances.

During the past year, the test centre at Computerworld's sister publication Infoworld has been inundated with the things. And not just the old standbys like firewalls, switches, and routers. I'm talking appliances that can handle virtually every IT operation: intrusion prevention, intrusion detection, CRM, antispam, e-mail security, Web services integration. We've even seen a smattering of appliances for Microsoft Exchange that come bundled with managed services.

What's notable about this shift toward gadgetry is that IT just can't get enough of the stuff -- and for good reason. Today's devices come equipped with software preinstalled and preconfigured, and there's no fussing around with app servers or operating systems. Just plug one in and watch it run.

That ease-of-use is particularly true of unified threat management boxes. New 1U boxes are ideal for branch offices and small to midsize businesses.

Though the first wave of IT appliances were single-function devices -- like, say, a firewall, or a server with antivirus functionality that pushed everything out to a client -- these boxes are "a different beast". And as one might expect, this single-console approach makes management and monitoring a far simpler task.

In many ways, all-in-one appliances reflect a generational shift toward usability, one that is reshaping the IT product universe.

Of course, vendors haven't always delivered what humans have wanted. In fact, IT products traditionally have been a bear to install, monitor, and troubleshoot. Difficulty has been a given, reinforcing the complexity of the products and adding to the mystique of the IT admin as geek guru and practitioner of the black arts.

But today's IT workers are all too ready to shed the guru's cloak. After years of fiddling with iPods, clicking through browser windows, and playing with electronic toys in their spare time, they're demanding plug-and-play devices, wizards that facilitate setup, and consumer-friendly UIs.

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