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Network Appliances: Why Resellers And Consultants Love Them.

Today, more businesses of every size are attaching all kinds of appliances--print servers, storage servers, digital document servers, camera servers, and Web servers--directly to their LANs. The reasons are clear. Network-attached appliances lower network costs, are easier to install and use, and offer greater flexibility and reliability than traditional multipurpose servers. Those user benefits make it easy for resellers to sell network appliances as solutions and, because there is strong demand for low-cost network solutions, resellers enjoy plenty of opportunities to leverage an appliance and related peripheral sale into providing margin-rich, value-added services. Resellers have other reasons to love these appliances--they are extremely easy to maintain and upgrade, and can usually be managed remotely from a Web browser.

What Are Network Appliances?

Network appliances, also known as thin servers, are small, plug-and-play, and network-based devices that perform a single function or set of server functions. In the past, when people wanted to attach a printer, scanner, or other piece of equipment to a network, they had to link the device to a server. Servers often are assigned multiple tasks because servers are costly. This can create bottlenecks and network problems that don't always seem related. For example, a large print job can slow file transfers.

In comparison to network servers, newer application-specific devices often provide better performance because they are optimized for a specific task. For example, print servers are designed to enhance printing performance. Print servers connect directly to a network, allowing users of different operating systems to share printer resources.

Typically, a network appliance has a network-optimized architecture, comes with "thin" versions of the most popular network operating systems, and provides client access independent of any operating system or proprietary protocol. The bottom-line benefit of network appliances is they allow businesses to add networking capabilities to peripherals in an easier, more cost-efficient manner than with a server.

Booming Thin Server Market

Resellers can make a lot of money from selling network appliances, as the market is growing rapidly and is predicted to explode in the next few years. The worldwide thin server market experienced 52 percent revenue growth in 1998, with sales reaching $1.5 billion, according to figures from Dataquest, a unit of Gartner Group Inc., a Stamford, Conn.-based research firm.

Large businesses bought most of the thin servers, 35.6 percent of the total. Medium-sized businesses consumed 28.9, while small businesses accounted for 16.5 of the market.

Dataquest expects the market for all devices to grow rapidly in the next few years, reaching $16 billion by 2002. For instance, it expects sales of storage servers to grow from $900 million in 1998 to more than $10 billion by 2002. Whether your focus is on the small business or the enterprise environment, thin servers offer a growth market that can complement current sales to your customers while at the same time expand your customer base.

Not All Network Appliances Are Created Equal

Whether you are buying a refrigerator or microwave, it's important to remember appliances aren't all the same. This is especially true for network appliances. You must know what to look for. The following are essential:

* Support for all popular networking environments. This is crucial, especially in today's complex world where companies have made investments in different applications, platforms, operating systems, and networking environments. Many appliances available today provide only limited coverage, which could make a successful sale more difficult if it doesn't address a customer's legacy applications.

The best appliances support multiple versions of every leading Network Operating Systems (NOS).

The benefit for businesses of products that support all of the above environments is that the appliances will work anywhere. That means resellers can sell them to any business with a network.

* Embedded browser-based management software. This allows an appliance to be automatically configured and installed, and then monitored and maintained from any browser on the network and any operating system. Some Web-based management tools give network managers real-time access to critical information about network traffic, status, and appliance connections--allowing a network administrator to manage appliances anywhere on the network from his or her desk.

* Easy installation. Getting these devices on the network has to be straightforward and quick. Some newer devices are starting to automate the installation process--by assigning IP addresses and automatically installing drivers--which saves time for businesses and resellers.

* Upgradeable. Leading manufacturers design their appliances to accept new and enhanced capabilities over time. They also design the products to be easily upgradeable, either via File Transfer Protocol (FTP) or downloaded from the Web.

The easy upgradeability of appliances allows companies to add new functionality as their businesses grow. Make sure your vendor has a history of providing timely upgrades.

* No client software. While many appliances meet this criterion, some products still require the user or reseller to install software on each desktop accessing the appliance.

* Optimized hardware. As an appliance doesn't need to perform a variety of functions like a traditional PC server, its hardware should be designed for maximum efficiency.

* Support. In addition to comparing the feeds, speeds, and prices of different appliances in a specific category, resellers should compare product warranties and companies' technical support infrastructure. A well-designed product should be well supported. Look for a minimum of a three-year warranty and free technical support for the life of each product.

Overall Benefits

Network appliances give resellers plenty of opportunities to leverage an appliance sale into providing margin-rich value-added services, as well as securing additional peripheral sales. After a demo and sale of an appliance and related peripheral, a reseller can sell the customer a host of related networking services, including upgrading the network, remote monitoring, monthly on-site maintenance, as well as a slew of Web-based services.

However, before resellers rush to embrace network appliances, I recommend they consider all facets of network appliances--market-leading technology, service and support, and the companies behind the products--before committing themselves to partner with a specific vendor. Don't forget the benefits of free technical support--happy customers and fewer hassles for you!

Peter Hanson is the director of U.S. Sales at Axis Communications, Inc. (Chelmsford, MA).
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Title Annotation:Industry Trend or Event
Publication:Computer Technology Review
Date:Oct 1, 1999
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