Plug-and-play appliances reshape IT landscape

All-in-one devices help IT keep it simple

Looking for a can’t-miss enterprise trend? I have just one word for you: appliances. During the past year, our Test Center has been inundated with the things. And not just the old standbys like firewalls, switches, and routers. I’m talking appliances that can handle virtually every IT operation: intrusion prevention, intrusion detection, CRM, anti-spam, e-mail security, Web services integration. We’ve even seen a smattering of appliances for Microsoft Exchange that come bundled with managed services (look for our Test Center review in April).

What’s notable about this shift toward gadgetry is that IT just can’t get enough of the stuff -- and for good reason. Today’s devices come equipped with software preinstalled and preconfigured, and there’s no futzing around with app servers or operating systems. Just plug one in and watch it run.

That ease-of-use is particularly true of the five unified threat management boxes Contributing Editor Keith Schultz reviewed for this week’s cover story. And it wasn’t just setup that proved to be a snap. Operation and monitoring, as Schultz found, were also no-brainers.

“The focus is really on making everything foolproof so you don’t set up rules out of order and trip yourself up,” Schultz says. The 1U boxes Schultz tested are ideal for branch offices and small to midsize businesses; heftier models from the same vendors -- all the way up to 5U units suitable for the datacenter -- deliver similar feature sets without sacrificing simplicity.

Though the first wave of IT appliances were single-function devices -- like, say, a firewall, or a server with anti-virus functionality that pushed everything out to a client -- these boxes are “a different beast,” Schultz says. “None of their separate elements breaks new ground, but they do pull typically separate security services into a single device and push everything into one management interface.” And as one might expect, this single-console approach makes management and monitoring a far simpler task.

In many ways, all-in-one appliances reflect a generational shift toward usability, one that is reshaping the IT product universe. “Unix guys still want the command-line interface,” Schultz notes. “But today’s admins typically believe that Web interfaces and GUIs are the way to go. It’s what humans want to see.”

Of course, vendors haven’t always delivered what humans have wanted. In fact, IT products traditionally have been a bear to install, monitor, and troubleshoot. Difficulty has been a given, reinforcing the complexity of the products and adding to the mystique of the IT admin as geek guru and practitioner of the black arts.

But today’s IT workers are all too ready to shed the guru’s cloak. After years of fiddling with iPods, clicking through browser windows, and playing with electronic toys in their spare time, they’re demanding plug-and-play devices, wizards that facilitate setup, and consumer-friendly UIs.

Just as any human would want.