NEW ORLEANS (03/27/2000) - You probably haven't heard much about Xcellenet lately, but they are back and trying to solve a looming network problem: management and security of personal digital assistants (PDA) and other handheld devices accessing the enterprise network.
In May, the company will announce Managellan, client and server software that lets network professionals get a handle on what's happening with PDAs that connect to corporate networks. The firm showed the product at Gartner Group's remote access conference last week.
Managellan is Xcellenet's remote-PC management software, Connect: Manage and Connect:Remote, adapted for any device running Palm OS or Windows CE operating systems.
With a piece of Managellan code installed on remote devices and a management application on a centrally located Windows NT server, network managers can distribute and retrieve data, manage configurations of remote equipment, and restrict remote user access to server applications. Managellan also inventories remote devices whenever they call in to the server over TCP/IP or wireless IP sessions.
Managing these devices is important because users are creating and storing more and more critical information on them that should be backed up to enterprise servers. The devices are proliferating so rapidly that in the next three years more than half of office workers with laptops will have two other mobile devices as well, according to Gartner Group.
Xcellenet disappeared in 1998 when it was bought by Sterling Commerce, which renamed the firm the Sterling Commerce Managed Systems Division. Sterling divested itself of the division last year, and Xcellenet re-emerged as a privately held company in February.
Managellan is the company's first product in a new field of competitors that are trying to piece together business-class, server-based management for handhelds, says Ken Dulaney, an analyst with Gartner Group in Stamford, Conn.
Xcellenet will compete against Riverbed Technologies, Synchrologic and other companies, he says.
Some vendors, such as Puma, specialize in syncing the devices with a server.
Some, such as Xcellenet, specialize in managing the devices themselves, he says. Xcellenet and Puma are working on integrating their software, which should take 18 months, and will result in better-rounded products, Dulaney predicts.
"I'm hoping more partnerships like this will occur. These PDA management companies will all go broke if they try to go it alone," Dulaney says.
Handhelds, such as Palm's and Handspring's, were originally introduced as personal devices, not networked devices. As shipped by their manufacturers, they can be synced with PCs. Now users sync them with each other and with their network-attached PCs. That raises network management and security issues, users say.
"What if the user wants network backup of data on a palmtop?" asks Chuck Novak, enterprise architect for Westinghouse Savannah River Co., a waste management firm in Aiken, S.C. Handhelds generally sync up to the C drive of a PC, and Novak's organization doesn't back up PC C drives.
Business customers need tools to let the devices sync directly with a server that can then inventory and control what is on the devices, he says.
Enterprise users also need to be aware that managing the devices will cost a lot of money, says Larry Tippets, deputy administrator for information services with the State of Idaho's Department of Health and Welfare.
"The device itself is pretty inexpensive, but I can see the support cost exceeding the cost of the PDA within the first 30 days," Tippets says. Training users and troubleshooting devices will eat up costly support-staff time, he says. Gartner says supporting a PDA will cost $2,700 per year.
He says organizations should insist on adopting a standard PDA for all users, or at least a small group of PDAs that can be managed by a single management platform. That way businesses can be sure they can manage them.
Novak says he is concerned that data on PDAs might be synced with personal PCs at users' homes, as well as at work, compromising security of data and potentially exposing the network to viruses. He says PDA management software needs to identify devices that have synced with non-network devices and deny them network access until they can be scanned.