Cutting Costs With Device Relationship Management

Jul 22, 2003

Drew Robb

IT outsourcing is one way to cut costs and focus resources onto core competencies. According to International Data Corp., based in Framingham, Mass., public and private organizations in the U.S. spent $30 billion on information systems outsourcing last year. Globally the bill came to $68 billion.

One of the most fruitful areas to outsource is equipment maintenance, whether this is included in an overall IT services contract or is simply part of an equipment lease or purchase agreement. In such a case, when the server, desktop, printer, copier or other device goes down, you just call the support line and they send someone out to do the repairs.

But this method is slow, inefficient, causes excessive downtime and is no longer necessary. Remote Monitoring and Management (RMM), and its outgrowth Device Relationship Management (DRM), provide vendors or service personnel direct access to equipment over a phone or internet connection so they can detect a problem, often before it results in a breakdown.

"DRM provides a means to cut short the overall time it takes to resolve issues with deployed architectures of IT componentry," says Tony Adams, a principal analyst in Gartner Infrastructure Support Services, based in Stamford, Conn. "The technology is appropriate for appliances, products and solutions sold as an integrated whole, and complex devices which are subject to performance degradation or failure and have to be monitored or appraised by IP connection."

Intelligent Devices

Network and systems administrators have long used software that lets them dig deep into the inner workings of devices to ascertain operational status, run diagnostics and execute repairs over a network connection. Management software issues alerts of potential problems so these can be fixed before a service goes down.

But with microprocessors being installed in every other imaginable piece of equipment powered by electrons, these are now remotely manageable -- thus an emerging field known as Remote Monitoring and Management (RMM).

According to Harbor Research Inc. of San Francisco, the average American household now has 30-40 microprocessors embedded in appliances, computers and entertainment systems. Cars have even more, around 50 controllers and microprocessors. While we are not yet to the point of remotely logging onto our refrigerator to see if we need to pick up milk on our way home from work, Harbor estimates 150 million home devices will be networked two years from now.

For now, though, RMM is not for consumers. Its main uses are commercial -- RMM has been found to be particularly useful for equipment and service vendors.

OnStar Inc., for example, can remotely extract automobile engine diagnostic information and tell the driver to either pull over immediately or just bring the car in for service when convenient. Verizon and SBC use Motive Communications Inc. software to perform diagnostics on broadband customers' systems, with minimal user input, in order to improve service and reduce support calls. And vending machines can now transmit their inventories back to the warehouse so they never run out.

One of the most recent developments with regard to RMM also applies directly to monitoring and managing components that make up the IT infrastructure, especially those specialized, mission-critical items which companies are likely to have a lot of difficultly supporting internally.

This is particularly true with high-end computing and storage devices. For example, EMC Corp., Hitachi Data Systems and others have incorporated RMM into their storage products so that the equipment can be directly monitored, and sometimes repaired, from the manufacturer's support center.

To expand the range of products supported by RMM, Axeda Systems Inc. of Mansfield, Mass. and Questra Corp. of Redwood City, Calif. have developed software that allows manufacturers, service providers and device users to remotely monitor and manage a wide range of devices over the Internet in real time. These solutions are called Device Relationship Management, or DRM, and provide a prepackaged set of interfaces that enable a device to report on its status and allow the support team to make adjustments or repair the systems without touching the equipment.

Axeda's DRM software line breaks down into three sets of components:

  • Agents -- A company can embed the DRM agents into the equipment or they can be in a separate box attached to the monitored device. The agents support 8-, 16- and 32-bit protocols and communicate via Internet, 802.11, dialup or GSM connections. The agents receive data from the monitored device and transmit it in XML-format to the DRM server. It then receives SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol -- a message-based protocol for accessing services on the Web) instructions from the server and uses these to control the device.

  • Axeda Enterprise Server -- A J2EE/XML application server that runs on Windows and Sun Solaris platforms. It conducts autodiscovery and remote management of the devices and produces reports. It also interfaces with CRM, ERP or SCM as needed for ordering supplies or informing customers.

  • Axeda Applications -- A set of Web-based interfaces for remote device administration, usage metering, software distribution, privacy policy enforcement, desktop sharing, diagnostics and data visualization.
  • DRM in Action

    Implementing DRM lets companies raise the level of support for their devices to that which was previously only available on available on high-ticket items. DRM is used with devices such as storage area networks (SAN), servers, host bus adapters, switches, tape libraries and power supplies. It also works with non-IT equipment including patient monitoring and diagnostic imaging devices, chip manufacturing equipment, HVAC and lighting systems in large buildings.

    Electronics for Imaging Inc., a $300 million image networking supplier based in Foster City, Calif. uses Axeda's DRM as part of it Intelligent Device Management program to allow customers to remotely monitor, manage and service both networked and non-networked printers and copiers.

    EFI is incorporating Axeda DRM technology into its controllers and other software so its customers can track usage, find out when paper or toner need replenishment, and determine when they need to send out a repair technician.

    The technology is also starting to make inroads into the traditional RMM stronghold of storage system management.

    "We are currently using our own Autosupport call-home capability, which generates automated support cases for over 60 triggered and proactive activities including automated parts dispatch and automated software fault analysis," says Rod Bagg, senior director of sustaining engineering at storage manufacturer Network Appliance, Inc., based in Sunnyvale, Calif. "The challenge with this system is it does not currently facilitate real-time monitoring and remote access capabilities, so we are exploring how Axeda's DRM would compliment our Autosupport."

    Gartner's Adams says that while DRM is useful in maintaining complex pieces of equipment, it wouldn't be needed for simpler devices.

    "It needs to be applied to a solution where the problems are such that the DRM is capable of remediating them," he explains. "The tool would be somewhat overkill if the device in question has no repairable parts or modifiable software and does not matter to adjacent systems in terms of continuance of function."


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