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When appliances get out of hand

Multifunction devices, virtual software appliances promise to slim down data centers and branch offices

By , Network World
April 26, 2007 12:06 AM ET

Network World - As appliances proliferate across data centers and branch offices, network managers are questioning whether the benefits of these specialized devices outweigh the management burden they create.

“The appliance form factor is very appealing, but there is a point at which there are just too many appliances. You can have a limited amount of rack space, and for the most part, the goal is to reduce the number of devices you have to manage,” says Koie Smith, IT administrator at Jackson, Tenn., law firm Rainey, Kizer, Reviere & Bell.

Smith and many others seeking security, acceleration and management capabilities over the past few years invested in software packaged on specialized network appliances.

One appeal of such preconfigured appliances is that they can require less upkeep than software installed on a server. A device may need updates only when the appliance vendor releases them and not with every Microsoft patch update, for example. Plus, if for some reason an appliance doesn’t work, its failure is fairly contained, making troubleshooting far easier.

“There is no mixed vendor interaction on an appliance, giving you only one throat to choke when something goes wrong,” says Chris Majauckas, computer technology manager for Metrocorp Publications in Boston.

Another appealing factor for overtaxed network teams is the fast route to deployment appliances offer.

“Organizations have been giving more responsibilities to the network team than the network team can absorb quickly. First, the network group needed to learn VoIP, and then it was about becoming experts at configuring acceleration appliances,” says Robert Whiteley, a senior analyst with Forrester Research. Adoption of new technologies such as these “can get stalled until the network team gets more comfortable with it. Appliances help move that along.”

Yet even with all the ease an appliance offers, network managers are getting tired of rolling out single-function devices that eat up rack space and don’t necessarily earn their keep.

“It becomes unmanageable to have a 7-foot rack of appliances and have to figure out how to get them all configured consistently so that an application behaves or is secured the way you want it to be,” says Joe Skorupa, a research director at Gartner. “There is going to be a backlash at least to get more consolidated appliances out of vendors so network teams are working with one instead of five.”

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