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Centralized PC power managers not created equal

Autonomic, BigFix, and Symantec Altiris solutions offer a wealth of potential power savings, but also differences in policy depth, granularity, and ease

By Logan G. Harbaugh, InfoWorld
September 23, 2009 06:42 AM ET

InfoWorld - Companies are anxious to reduce power usage these days, both to save cash on energy bills and to reduce their environmental impact. One area that's ripe for power savings is the desktop. At companies across the globe, end-users leave their computers and monitors on day and night for any number of reasons, be it for late-night backups and patching or ensuring they can get cracking the moment they sit down at their desks each morning.

These conveniences come at an overlooked price: Keeping a PC running 24/7 can cost as much as $375 per year, depending on the type of computer and monitor, as well as energy rates in your region. Shutting down a PC for 16 hours or so per day can cut those costs by 66 percent. That translates to potential savings of more than $120,000 if you have 500 machines.

[ InfoWorld debunks 10 myths about power saving. | Learn more about the ROI of PC power management. | Learn about free power management alternatives to pricey management suites. ]

Rather than relying on end-users to power down their machines and monitors each night, then reboot them in the morning, organizations are increasingly turning to power management offerings, products capable of powering machines on and off at predetermined times to ensure that they're awake when it's time for work, backups, or patches. Otherwise, they'll be asleep so as not to waste energy and money.

I had an opportunity to test out three power management software systems aimed at the enterprise desktop market, from vendors Autonomic Software, BigFix, and Symantec. Notably, all three software products are part of suites intended to provide a great many more PC management functions beyond control over power usage, such as remote desktop support, configuration and patch management, vulnerability assessment, and endpoint protection.

Windows XP, Vista, and Windows 7 already come equipped with tools for putting a machine in a low-power state (ranging from standby and sleep to complete shutdown) at a set period of time or a predetermined amount of inactivity. Why, then, would an organization invest in a separate power-management tool? The reason: These tools offer several useful features not available in Windows. For example, they can locate systems with hibernation disabled and re-enable it. They can shut down applications and save files before powering down the system. Admins can set different durations of inactive time before hibernation is triggered; for example, to prompt a machine to sleep after only a couple of minutes of inactivity during evenings and weekends -- but not until, say, a half-hour during the work day. Admins also can use the tools to automatically restart PCs at predetermined times, such as in the middle of the night for software updates and patches, or in the morning, shortly before the users arrive.

Enter power modeThere are several modes of power saving, depending on the OS, motherboard, monitor, and power strip or UPS. When Windows powers down a monitor, for instance, power usage on the monitor doesn't drop to zero; rather, it enters a power-saving mode defined by the manufacturer, generally using less than 3 watts. Even if the monitor is turned off, its power supply may be using some electricity. This is true of PCs as well; even when shut down, they still draw some power to keep the clock running and enable wake-on-LAN and other features.

Notably, a new type of power strip/UPS from APC can eliminate much of this wasted power. The P7GT power strip and the BE750G Back-UPS model both power off up to three peripherals when the attached computer shuts down or goes into hibernate mode. This means that the power supplies for the peripherals are completely powered off, rather than using standby power or full power when the computer is shut off.

Windows XP, Vista, and Windows 7 offer three degrees of power saving: sleep (called standby in XP), hibernate, and shut down. Sleep saves system state to RAM in order to resume very quickly, while hibernate saves state to disk, taking longer to resume but allowing even RAM to be powered down. Standby mode in XP is essentially the same as sleep mode in Vista and Windows 7, except that standby saves system state only in RAM whereas Vista and Windows 7 also save it to disk as a safety measure.

Rather than focusing on the technical differences of these modes, it is useful to examine the recovery times to full operational. Booting from shutdown takes the longest, up to several minutes depending on the system, how many drivers load, how long it's been since a clean install, and other factors. Restoring from hibernate is generally quicker, and restoring from sleep is quickest of all, generally requiring only a few seconds.

Particularly during the day, shutting down a PC is not economical. If you power down a user's PC while he or she is at lunch, the 3 cents of electricity you save will be wiped out by the five minutes the user wastes waiting for the PC to boot up.

Go, go power saversAll three software products in my test help admins locate PCs that aren't using power management; moreover, they all enable policy-based enforcement of power-saving settings by remotely deploying agents to each PC on the network. Additionally, they offer considerably more flexibility than trying to use Group Policy in Active Directory, plus they deliver a wealth of other features unrelated to power management -- although at additional cost.

The offerings aren't all created equal, however. Autonomic delivers the easiest and most granular power policy management, but the Autonomic management platform supports only Windows clients. BigFix approaches Autonomic in power management features, while being able to manage a very wide array of client and server platforms. Symantec boasts the broadest overall management platform, integrating many different products into a single management console and providing a limited but free power management capability along with the rest of the platform.

Autonomic Software ANSA Platinum SuiteIn my tests, I prefer to install products myself to ensure that my experience is the same as a customer's. For my test of Autonomic ANSA Platinum Suite, the company gave me a Lenovo server with the software pre-installed on Windows Server 2003. I allowed this on the assurance that Autonomic is just as accommodating to all its customers.

A small company, Autonomic seems very, very responsive to customer requests. Based on comments I made during the process of getting the system integrated into my test bed, Autonomic made changes in the code, adding features I'd suggested in passing, and sent me an updated version within a week. Neither BigFix nor Symantec are likely to be this responsive, especially to smaller customers.

The Autonomic ANSA management system is quite flexible, allowing policy-based management by user or group that can take many variables into account. Thus, if you have groups that come in at nine and leave at five on the dot, you can develop different policies for them than you might for developers who work at all hours of the day and night. Additionally, you might set different policies for different times of the week, putting some PCs into hibernate after five minutes of inactivity and giving others more time.

Admins have the flexibility to treat laptops differently from desktop PCs. You can apply different policies for plugged-in laptops versus ones running on batteries, for example. The agent also allows for if-then-else scripting, which lets administrators create flexible policies that take into account the day of the week, whether there are files open on the PC, which software packages are installed, and so forth. 

[ Learn more about which utilities are offering free money to companies who reduce their energy consumption. ]

Some other things, such as enforcing password protection when the screen saver is on, are easier to do in ANSA, which often provides a simple check box where the other systems require hunting around in the policy editor. The administrator can easily hide the power management control panel from the user as well, thus preventing anyone from tampering with the settings.

Once Autonomic's ANSA agent is deployed, the PC's power policy can easily be managed from one screen.

The system can wake PCs during the night for patching, put the them back to sleep afterward, then rouse them in the morning as users arrive. The agent can also execute command-line utilities, enabling it, for instance, to use a computer manufacturer's utility to change BIOS settings on the motherboard or network interface card, assuming that the manufacturer provides such a utility. The included asset-management part of the suite can discover all the devices on a given subnet, and it collects SNMP and WMI data from each system.

Autonomic offers a unique pricing model for the power-management portion of its ANSA suite; rather than charging a set price per seat, the company takes 25 percent of the savings you reap by implementing PC power management. The company will help customers calculate their projected savings; plus, it will work with you to apply for rebates from your local utility, offered by some as an incentive to reduce power consumption. Moreover, the company has information on tax incentives and carbon-trading programs that may apply in your area.

Autonomic sees the power management piece of its suite as a loss leader. The strategy is to give companies a reason to install the suite, then upsell customers on additional features, such as remote desktop control; remote monitoring of network, devices, servers, and workstations; remote management with help-desk functionality; patch management; configuration management; software distribution; workstation backup; enterprise reporting; vulnerability assessment; and managed services. Given the relative ease-of-use of the system, this is a good deal for both Autonomic and its customers.

The ANSA reporting tools let you easily quantify savings obtained through power management as well as which PCs have which policies. 

BigFix Enterprise Suite 7.2Like the Autonomic and Symantec products in this roundup, the BigFix Enterprise Suite 7.2 runs on a Windows server and has the same sort of SQL Server requirement. It proved easy to install and deploy, and rolling out the agents to Windows Server 2003, Vista, and XP systems was a snap. In addition to Windows agents, BigFix has agents available for multiple varieties of Linux, as well as Solaris, HP-UX, Mac OS X, and AIX.

BigFix integrates well with Active Directory, making it easy to find the systems to which you want to deploy agents. The agent can also be deployed manually, using an installer on a network drive.

Once the agent is installed, you have an array of management options. You can set a policy to enable any of the power management options available through Windows, from always-on to hibernating after any desired period of inactivity. You can apply different policies to different users or groups, either policies already existing in Active Directory or new policies created within BigFix. You can also create a policy that wakes PCs at night to receive software updates and patches, then puts them back to sleep afterward.

Creating power management policies for individual PCs or groups of PCs is fairly straightforward in BigFix.  

Like Autonomic, BigFix can manage power options not available through the Windows power management control panel, such as the suspend sleep state or CPU state used in hibernation, if the hardware supports it. BigFix gives you most of the flexibility in creating and applying power management policies that Autonomic provides, save the if-then-else scripting that allows you to incorporate the day of the week and other variables beyond time of day.

Moreover, you can track power usage, save and close open documents before powering down, and track the amount of time that the computer is idle during the day. Reporting tools allow the administrator to estimate how much power is being used by all systems, and how much can be conserved by implementing a power savings plan. BigFix can also deploy a utility to track real-time power usage on each managed system.

In addition to the power management functionality, BigFix has a multitude of other management features, including inventory of PC hardware and software, managing software updates and patches, setting the desktop configuration and controlling settings for any control panel software, and even locking down password policies and keeping the user from installing unauthorized software.

At $7 per seat for the basic framework, which includes PC asset management and the power management features, BigFix's offering is quite inexpensive and easy to implement.

BigFix can manage power options not available through the Windows control panel, such as suspend sleep state, if the hardware supports it. 

Symantec Altiris 7.0.354Like the other vendors in this roundup, Symantec offers power-management features as part of a greater PC management suite called Altiris Client Management Suite. The company offers a freely downloadable evaluation version of Altiris. My demo version installed fairly easily, although the basic installation required agreeing to 33 end-user license agreements, due to the modular nature of the product. If you want to keep using the product beyond the evaluation period, $95 per seat buys you a lot more than just power management, but it may be a sticking point for those who merely want to save on power.

Altiris supports a wide variety of hardware and operating systems, including many versions of Windows and Linux and several varieties of Unix. However, BigFix still beats out Symantec in terms of supported platforms.

Once the framework was installed, I was able to easily select systems from Active Directory and download agents to them. From there, I took an inventory of the current power management scheme and deployed a new one. One caveat: You should not try to run the server and management interface on an older computer. On my 2.8GHz Xeon single-core system with 1GB of RAM, it often took upward of a minute to select a single item from a list. A quad-core system with 8GB of RAM proved much peppier.

The inventory I looked at was specific to power management, though Altiris has a great many other inventory capabilities and reporting tools to gather information about what hardware is installed on your network as well as what versions of software and drivers you're running, what the patch levels are, and so on.

Setting a power management policy in Altiris is straightforward, and policies can be created that affect Active Directory groups or groups specified by attributes such as OS version or hardware type. 

Altiris gives you six power schemes -- always on, home/office disk, max battery, minimal power, portable/laptop, and presentation -- to apply to different users and groups, defined either in Active Directory or through the product itself. Each scheme is pre-configured with time of inactivity settings for turning off the monitor, turning off the hard disk, and putting the system into sleep and hibernation modes.

Unlike in Autonomic and BigFix, the policies don't go beyond pulling the levers in the Windows power management control panel. Nor do you get the flexibility in applying these policies that Autonomic and BigFix provide.

Each scheme can be modified -- but once a scheme is modified, the new version applies to all systems that subscribe to that scheme. Further, you can't create new schemes, like something halfway between max battery and home/office; you have six and only six schemes to work with. This is much less flexible than the other two products, which let you define any number of schemes or policies for different users, as well as giving the option of password-protecting the system after it's brought out of hibernation.

Altiris does offer a Wake On LAN setting, which will let you wake systems at night, apply patches, then put them back to sleep. It doesn't provide a way to save files before turning a system off.

Most organizations wouldn't deploy Symantec's Altiris framework just for the power management piece. It offers a host of other features, including PC management functions for controlling desktop settings, installing software, taking inventory of software and hardware installed on the PC, locking down a system to keep the user from changing settings or adding unauthorized software, and many more. The complete feature list of the Altiris management framework is quite extensive. Organizations that already use the framework can deploy the power management capability at no additional cost.

All three suites will help admins locate PCs that are wasting power and configure them to hibernate or shut down as needed, then start up before users arrive in the morning. Each offers similar functionality in creating and applying power management policies. Autonomic is the most flexible, and it promises -- literally -- to pay for itself. BigFix provides an uncomplicated licensing model, support for a variety of platforms, and a highly capable product. Symantec's offering is a mature, enterprise-class platform with more management features beyond power management than either BigFix or Autonomic, though at a much higher price per seat.

Altiris' power settings can be updated multiple times per day, so that systems go into hibernation more quickly after hours. 

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