Product Review: Orbiter reins in PC satellites

In my organisation, as in many others, an increasing percentage of the budget each year is allocated to laptops. With these purchases comes an added hit to IT budgets due to the costs and obstacles integral to the maintenance and support of a mobile computing environment.

Orbiter 3.0, Callisto Software's latest release, is a strong tool for managing remote-computing environments. With its server- and client-based queuing scheme, Orbiter facilitates the regulation of remote desktops, automates the rollout of application and file upgrades, and harvests a database of health-related information from your field machines.

Hardware and software inventorying, new to Version 3.0, provides administrators with effective asset management tools, and Orbiter's documentation options have been bolstered with new report generation via Crystal Reports.

Although Orbiter's asset-management search engine lacks an aggressiveness found in desktop management tools such as Microsoft's Systems Management Server, Orbiter's effectiveness in dial-up environments -- using its auto-download recovery, for example -- excels over LAN-based solutions. And although Orbiter does not possess the remote-control or Windows NT-service capabilities of Sterling Commerce's Connect: Remote, Orbiter's lower per-seat price and easier packaging scheme make it more effective at improving the cost and efficiency of remote systems management.

Orbiter's messaging and file transfers can be accomplished both transparently, when remote users access their e-mail, and through TCP/IP when docked on the LAN. Job queuing with store-and-forward technology allows you to run Orbiter's management tasks offline, and results in minimal impact on your road warriors.

With the Package Creation Wizard, I was able to quickly round up files for transfer and specify a target directory for installation on each client machine. I was also able to specify a post-transfer command, in this case a setup program, that initiated the installation of the application without user intervention.

Orbiter's server-side administrative console keeps tabs on user sessions and marks each job as successful, pending, or experiencing difficulties. Orbiter further allowed me to specify alert criteria, for instant notification of problems.

Orbiter's strength comes from its mindfulness of the constraints of mobile desktop management; these limitations are easily overlooked in traditional LAN-based solutions. Features such as Checkpoint/Restart provided a safety net for the error-prone inefficiencies of file transfers over dial-up connections. Compression, selective file transfer, and offline analysis assured the efficient use of computing resources.

New to Orbiter 3.0 are facilities for hardware and software asset management. Orbiter keeps a software inventory by identifying the resource information located within executable files. Orbiter also scans your hardware, collecting data on BIOS, memory, disk, and other device configurations, as well as system resources and environment/OS variables.

Orbiter's clean, tabbed administrative interface affords easy navigation and quick access to these hardware and software inventories, as well as to features such as alert messages, job listings, and the handy job-scheduling calendar.

Multiple views of the database allowed me to search by criteria I specified, locate assets of a particular machine, and quickly isolate all machines running a particular software version. This data is invaluable for troubleshooting and planning software upgrades.

Although Orbiter does not support remote-control features, you can use its Change Analysis for troubleshooting assistance. This utility takes snapshots of the remote registry, configuration files, and file system, and stores them at the Orbiter server. I was able to compare the new resource data to those previously saved, as well as to corporate-wide paradigms. The Orbiter interface identified and highlighted altered entries, making it possible to rapidly detect offending or conflicting resources.

I did not find that Orbiter's management features offered much in the way of advancements over traditional LAN-based solutions. Some of Orbiter's shortcomings, such as the inability to log on to Windows NT as a service and the absence of remote-control capabilities, will be addressed in future releases, according to Callisto.

All told, administrators hoping to corral remote systems management will appreciate Orbiter 3.0's finely honed capability to accomplish the task using dial-up bandwidth. I found Orbiter's effectiveness, comparable to what is typically found in LAN-based tools, to provide a means of reducing mobile management costs and improving end-user satisfaction.

James Borck is an IS director for Industrial Art & Science, in Connecticut. He can be reached at james.borck@industrialArt.com.

The bottom line: good

Orbiter 3.0

Summary: This desktop management solution provides good centralised control of remote PCs over your existing e-mail infrastructure. New software and hardware asset management, along with improved reporting features, strengthen Orbiter's capabilities to troubleshoot and maintain remote-computing environments.

Business Case: Although the start-up costs are too great for small networks, IT administrators in midsize to large companies will find Orbiter an effective means of reducing the total cost of ownership for mobile PCs.

Pros

+ Uses existing IP and e-mail infrastructure+ Operation transparent to end-users+ Wizard-driven interface+ Easy-to-navigate administration consoleCons- Runs only on Windows- Limited NT support- No remote-control capabilityCost: Orbiter server: $US5000; Orbiter clients start at $150.

Platforms: Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows NT 4.0 and laterCallisto Software, Wheaton, Illinois; +1 (630) 682-8200; fax: +1 (860) 682-8374; sales@callisto.com; www.callisto.com.

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