Another group of players will probably be emerging on the patch management scene: hardware vendors.In the past, some of the vendors addressing patch management have come from electronic software distribution roots, as they see this as a natural extension of what they do - distributing and installing software. Security management vendors are another group that sees this as a natural fit with what they do - protecting the assets of a company. Then there are some vendors that started in configuration management and also see this as a natural fit for them - extending their knowledge of system configurations to maintain the integrity of the system\u2019s software.As system hardware has become more of a commodity, I\u2019ve written about how hardware vendors are trying to differentiate their products by building in management functionality, as well as offering management software capabilities bundled with the hardware. Some of the management capabilities may be embedded in the hardware and operating system; others will simply be offered as giveaway or low-cost add-ons.It\u2019s this trend that could prompt vendors to offer management capabilities such as inventory and patch management with the hardware.It will be interesting to see how far the vendors will go to gain mindshare for their hardware offerings. How much management functionality will be pushed downward to differentiate the hardware, without giving away the candy store? And what happens to management software vendors that compete in that market?I suspect that as functionality is pushed down the management stack, this will force management vendors that have been primarily offering products at the lower infrastructure layers to move their offerings up the management stack. While not a bad dynamic, it could add more competitive pressure in the middle of the management stack. I say this because a vendor that offers basic Layer 1 or 2 infrastructure is unlikely to create offerings at the upper layers of the OSI model; it\u2019s more likely to add offerings in areas that are adjacent to its core competency. And I\u2019d say that looks like it would be in the middle to lower layers.As the shift to providing management capabilities with the hardware takes place, users will stand to benefit. In particular, small businesses, which have tended to economize on their spending on management capabilities, stand to gain the most. Larger enterprise firms will also benefit if these lower-level management capabilities can interact with any higher-level management tools that exist within their organization.Watch for enhanced management functionality at the low end. The most interesting thing about all of this will be to see which management functions will be used to lure customers to hardware. This trend could become an interesting patchwork quilt that goes way beyond patch management.