December 14, 2004

Open Country launches edge management software

Author: Mary E. Tyler

A recent controversial IDC study
said that some 62% of the TCO of Linux comes from support, versus
only about 50% for Windows, for which support is slightly cheaper.
Though you can argue about the validity of the survey's results, no
one can deny that Linux would be a more attractive solution if it
were cheaper and easier to support. Open Country, a small company with
big aspirations, is today announcing new software that aims to make that happen.

Conventional wisdom offers a couple reasons why Linux is still the
underdog. First, supply and demand -- experienced Linux admins are in
shorter supply and thus a bit more expensive than their Windows
counterparts. Second, the tools used to provision and manage edge
servers, which often come in from the shadows of an organization one
by one rather than via a planned, top-down roll out, are often
fragmented and home-grown. There are heavy duty tools to manage Linux
in the data center, but there are fewer easy-to-use tools to manage
Linux on the edges of an organization: in print servers, proxies,
mail servers, and so on.

Stripling at bat

Conventional wisdom also assumes it takes an expert to manage
Linux machines. Open Country,
the developer of the OC-Manager
suite of software, which targets edge servers, blades, and desktop
machines -- anything that is not in the data center -- disagrees. At
LinuxWorld last August, Open Country offered $1,000 to the sysadmin
and non-admin who could perform a relatively complex series of
provisioning tasks the fastest: group a number of desktop machines
for management, create an application stack, schedule the machines
for backup and software and hardware discovery, and finally deploy
the application stack.

An experienced sysadmin, using OC-Manager, had a winning time of
two minutes and 48 seconds. In the non-admin category, the winner was
a vice president of marketing for a consulting services firm. His
time? Three minutes and 14 seconds. He had never administered a
machine in his life.

"The moral of this story," says Laurant
, COO of Open Country, "is that if we drastically reduce the
overall effort to do fairly complex tasks, we reduce it for
professionals as well as non-specialists. If you are bringing Linux
machines into a company with a strong Windows base, you can easily
get your Microsoft people to manage the new systems." This doesn't
mean that a company can completely do without a highly skilled Linux
administrator. It simply means that rather than spending all their
time doing installations, these Linux admin pros can set up the
foundations, configure settings, and then pass off the grunt work to
junior admins, or even Windows admins.

The concepts to administer machines are generally the same; it's
the minutiae that changes from OS to OS. OC-Manager provides a simple
point-and-click Web-based interface to a Linux machine in the back

Confession time: I've never administered a Linux machine --
strictly a user here. I looked at the OC-Manger interface, and it was
definitely non-threatening; simple enough that I could have done
pretty much whatever needed to be done to provision, manage, or
restore a Linux box connected to the network. I don't doubt that
Windows admins would probably feel similarly comfortable. The
learning curve? Two hours is Open Country's claim, and I believe it.
Two hours -- max.

How it hits

The first step in deploying a new device is to set up the box and
get it physically connected to the network. At this point, someone
must go to each machine and install OC-Agent, a program that enables a Linux machine
to communicate with OC-Host and provide information about itself and
its configuration. That's the last time anyone needs to touch the
machine itself. An administrator can do anything else, barring
hardware repair or replacement, from the browser-based interface.

Behind the scenes somewhere, you also install OC-Host, the server
side of the suite, on a Linux box. Security preferences can set who,
how, and from where admins can access the OC-Manager interface.

Once in, an administrator can classify computers into logical or
geographical groups. Computers can belong to more than one group, of
course. Depending on privileges, the admin can set up software
stacks, back up configurations, push replacement files when
something's been corrupted, schedule backups, or find out the exact
hardware and software configuration for a machine or group of
machines. He can even compare several machines for purposes such as
troubleshooting, to learn "why is this working and that not

Open Country claims its system scales from 10 to 10,000 managed
machines. It incorporates features that would appeal to an IT support
vendor too, rather than strictly features for in-house IT. Hardware
and software discovery features are new in version 2.5. "It's not
something we even thought to add," says Open Country CEO Mike
, "but we've worked very closely with [support vendor] EDS,
and they suggested that hardware discovery was a definite need from
the point of view of the third party support vendor."

The field

Open Country has a few market plays. First, it's swinging for the
in-house infield of medium to large companies. Second, it's pitching
toward the IT support vendors, with features designed to bring make
sure their costs stay safely on base. Third, though Open Country's
software is not open source itself, it is reaching out to the open
source community by making its management and provisioning software
(sans hardware discovery and a few other high-end features) available
to small Linux-based developers for free.

Sad to say, though, the field in Linuxville is no clearer than in
Mudville. It's not exactly open country -- sorry, couldn't resist.
"Open Country's single play for Linux support is challenged by
increasing competition and technology shifts toward virtualization,"
says Stacey Quandt, senior business analyst at The Robert Frances Group.
According to Quandt, Open Country faces competition from the growing
adoption of virtualization solutions such as VMware and IBM's hardware-assisted
to support provisioning and resource allocation. Other
competitors include Novell's Red Carpet, obtained through its
acquisition of Ximian, and Mountain View Data's PowerCockpit
which provides provisioning and system management.

Still, it's a big field and there's plenty of room for home runs.

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