An informal survey conducted by eWEEK Labs late last year found that IT professionals biggest concerns going into this year were “budget,” “ability to support base business with incredibly lean staff,” “funding constraints,” “cuts in spending” and—well, you get the idea.
IT managers are looking for ways to stretch their budget dollars, prompting eWEEK Labs to take a hard look at products weve tested and use to manage our East and West Coast lab facilities to recommend those that, bottom line, provide the most bang for the IT buck.
Security and Anti-Spam Utilities
So many factors are relative when you try to figure return on investment, but its not tough to compute when free equals more secure.
The freeware LaBrea, whose praises weve sung many times, sits on your network and listens for connections on unused IP addresses. If a worm tries to connect to one of these addresses, LaBrea maintains a connection that traps the worm, thus preventing it from continuing to look for systems to infect.
Here at eWEEK Labs, we install many utilities and other small software applications. One unfortunate side effect of many of these applications, especially many that are considered “free,” is the under-the-covers installation of spyware. Lavasofts Ad-aware is a free application that scans your system for spyware and cookies that can track your Web usage and then makes it easy to remove these unwanted guests. When combined with a good personal firewall that tracks outgoing communications, Ad-aware puts control of systems where it belongs.
When every user at an organization spends minutes a day figuring out whats spam and whats not, deleting the mail thats determined to be spam, grumbling about the increasing amount of spam and digging through the deleted-mail folder for something that wasnt spam after all, said organization is losing big bucks. Take back the in-box—and wasted time and mind share—with SpamAssassin, which eWEEK Labs has used in tandem with the mail filter facilities of Ximian Inc.s Evolution. SpamAssassin can also be used on the server side. Unix versions of the software are free, and commercial SpamAssassin plug-ins are available for the Microsoft Corp. Outlook and Qualcomm Inc. Eudora mail clients.
—Jim Rapoza and Jason Brooks
A product that provides phenomenal ROI is the Mozilla browser, currently at Version 1.2.1. The dollar investment is zero, and the training investment is not much more than that. The return is ready availability, cross-platform capabilities and, maybe most important, extra time.
Users will buy lots of time with Mozillas ability to beat back pop-up ads, its capacity for browsing the Web with tabs and its ability to save collections of open Web page tabs under a single bookmark. While conducting research, weve often used this feature to lasso an active group of pages for later review. Its tough to understand how useful tabbed browsing is without trying it firsthand, so if you havent used Mozilla lately, we suggest you give it a try.
Opera, the tabbed-browsing trailblazer, is also worth a spin. Its free with ads and $39 without. Version 7 just became available. —Jason Brooks
: Office Suites, CRM and SFA, Web App Development and Testing, Development Tools”>
OpenOffice.org provides companies with a very good alternative to Microsofts Office thats free of licensing costs and runs on Windows, Linux and Solaris. A beta of OpenOffice.org for Mac OS X and X11 is available, with a native Macintosh version expected next year.
In the Labs extended tests using OpenOffice.orgs word processor and spreadsheet applications in a largely Microsoft Office setting, weve had great success with OpenOffice.orgs import and export filters for Microsofts .doc and .xls file formats.
In addition, while getting used to the OpenOffice.org interface takes a bit of adjustment, the time investment pays dividends when shifting among platforms. Whats more, when confronted with a system without office applications, the suites ready availability and lack of activation or licensing restrictions make deployment a snap.
CRM and SFA
Lets face the facts: After years of overbuying products that were overhyped in the first place, most companies dont have a lot of money left for big-ticket items. In troubled economic times, every company is going to try to extract as much sweat from its employees as possible. The worst companies will simply try to cut head count; the best companies will look at something like a CRM (customer relationship management) or sales force automation system, albeit one that wont bankrupt them.
Thats why my best buy is Salesforce.com. While the dot-com boom went bust, Salesforce.com Inc. bucked the trend, showing growth. While CRM companies in general fell apart, Salesforce.com added customers. While application service providers bit the dust, Salesforce.com showed how the model can work. Salesforce.com is not for everyone, but at $125 per month per user or less, its full-fledged CRM on a budget. Better yet, its usable from the moment its turned on, providing a quick benefit and an increased chance for a positive ROI. —John Taschek
Web App Development and Testing
When it comes to developing and editing Web applications and Web pages, flexibility is key to reining in costs. Although there are tools that are better at building applications in specific languages, there is nothing that provides as good a development environment for building Web applications in a variety of languages as Macromedia Inc.s Dreamweaver MX. Dreamweaver MX can handle anything from ASP, or Active Server Pages, to JSP (JavaServer Pages) to XML to Cold Fusion applications. And with extensions, Dreamweaver MX works with even more languages, including PHP. When weighed against buying individual tools for every potential application platform, the $399 Dreamweaver MX is a good buy indeed.
Two other compelling values are Sun Microsystems Inc.s NetBeans and IBMs Eclipse. Both are multilanguage and free, have vibrant development communities, and are very competitive with for-cost integrated development environments. In fact, Sun and IBM both base their commercial development tool lines on NetBeans and Eclipse, respectively.
Once a Web application is built, it will need to be tested, but its hard for even eWEEK to find a few thousand users to load-test a Web application. Weve used RadView Software Ltd.s WebLoad to quickly create unique scripts to test even the most complex sites. WebLoad can test pretty much any Web application, and it allows developers to easily find breaking points in applications.
Like most high-end testing tools, WebLoad is not cheap: It ranges in price from about $10,000 to six figures. However, given the immaturity of open-source options, the limited functionality of lower-cost options and the price an organization will pay for applications that break under pressure, WebLoad is a very worthwhile investment.
—Jim Rapoza and Timothy Dyck
Writing code before defining the problem can cost a company significant time, frustration and money, which is why something such as Popkin Software and Systems Inc.s System Architect ought to be used at the outset. No one has to win a religious war over diagramming methods before this modeling and analysis tool can be brought to bear: The $5,250 system offers integrated support for every major method, with a well-integrated repository that captures and shares relationships (such as “includes” or “is an instance of”) as well as entities, and with code generation tools for C++, Java and Visual Basic.
Turning concept into code may well involve writing in multiple languages and on multiple platforms. Nothing meets that need better than SlickEdit Inc.s Visual SlickEdit, a power tool for building and managing code on Windows, Unix/Linux and IBM mainframe platforms that supports coders in more than 30 programming languages. SlickEdit is priced from $299 to $399.
The next step up the food chain is a tool set that makes low-level coders productive, whether writing a device driver in C or a server-side application in Java. The standard is set by the $599 Metrowerks Inc. CodeWarrior, available for Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, Palm OS, Symbian, and every embedded processor or platform thats ever crossed our radar at eWEEK Labs.
But CodeWarriors loyalty is to the developer and the code, not to any particular set of platform APIs. If getting the most out of Microsofts platforms is the agenda, Microsofts Visual Studio .Net (priced from $1,079 to $2,499) is the way to go.
At the top of todays food chain, though, are applications that can draw on many assets and can run wherever its most useful to put them. While giving Microsoft full credit for the efficiency and the superb integration of current Windows and .Net offerings, we give top rank to Borland Software Corp.s JBuilder for its ease of productive standards-based development on Windows, Mac and Unix/Linux machines. Prices for JBuilder range from $399 to $3,999.
: Application Servers, Databases, Remote Access, Servers”>
Getting a good buy in the enterprise database or application server space is more a matter of careful requirements analysis than anything else. The last few years have seen the maturation of a number of low-end to midmarket products that provide great bang for the buck if project complexity doesnt grow beyond their limits.
One of our favorite low-cost options is the The Apache Software Foundations Jakarta Project (at jakarta.apache.org). Its home to a number of high-quality, free, open-source products, including Tomcat, a JSP and Java Servlet application server; Ant, the Java build tool; and Struts, an up-and-coming template language for rapidly building Web applications.
eWEEK Labs uses Tomcat internally to run our Excellence Awards entry submission application. Its easy to set up on Unix and Windows systems, has a good security track record, and is very stable. We wish it had better administration tools (particularly for performance monitoring and log analysis), but, for hosting JSP-based Web applications, its a good bet.
Higher up the complexity scale (but not up the cost scale) are the JBoss development teams JBoss and Suns Sun ONE Application Server Platform Edition. Both are complete, free Java 2 Enterprise Edition Java application servers. Neither has the widespread third-party support, multimode clustering sophistication or administrative interfaces that market-share leaders BEA Systems Inc.s BEA WebLogic Server and IBMs WebSphere Application Server provide, but they will do just fine for many jobs.
The ultralow-cost relational database products MySQL ABs MySQL and the PostgreSQL development teams PostgreSQL provide proven database engines for simpler tasks. However, the feature and functionality delta between low cost and more expensive products is more pronounced in the database market than in the application server or tools sectors.
The free, open-source MySQL still lacks some major SQL engine features, although there is a plan to address these. At last months LinuxWorld Expo, the company announced a test release of MySQL 4.1 with support for subselects and subqueries. Version 5.0, which will support stored procedures and triggers, is planned for the end of the year. MySQL already supports transactions.
PostgreSQL, also free and open source, supports subselects, subqueries, triggers and stored procedures. However, it is still difficult to get working on Windows, and, as with MySQL, it lacks major database functionality such as online analytical processing, query precomputation, data mining, clustering, and sophisticated administration and performance monitoring tools.
IBMs DB2 Workgroup Server Edition (with pricing starting at $999 per server) is our pick as the best combination of a no-compromise database combined with a low-cost entry point.
At a base price of $60,000 per CPU, Oracle Corp.s Oracle9i with RAC (Real Application Clusters) is more expensive than other database server systems, but RAC can save organizations significant amounts of money in hardware.
—Timothy Dyck and John Taschek
Neoteris Inc.s Instant Virtual Extranet appliance allows IT managers to easily and securely Web-enable essential corporate resources such as e-mail and network file shares with a single appliance. The IVE appliance proxies all requests from behind the firewall to allow remote access to applications and internal Web resources from the Internet or extranets using standard Web browsers. The connections are secured with Secure Sockets Layer over HTTP, so remote users can ensure that they have privacy when accessing corporate data from the Internet or when sharing resources with business partners over a secure link.
The appliance approach is less complex than deploying standard VPNs because no client-side software is required, and the service can be up and running quickly. Prices start at $30,000 for 1,000 remote users.
Ease of use and functionality are two things that stood out when we looked at Apple Computer Inc.s Xserve last year. These two qualities make the Xserve, priced starting at $2,999, a good choice for small businesses with basic needs such as Web serving and file serving.
Apples decision to use inexpensive IDE drives instead of SCSI drives gives the Xserve cheap storage capacity. In addition, its ease of use and the absence of user licenses make Xserve inexpensive to deploy and maintain.
Another good server buy is the Dell Computer Corp. PowerEdge 1655MC blade server, Dells entry into the ultradense server market. The PE 1655MC, which costs $24,000 fully loaded, offers good processor density with a maximum of 12 1.4GHz Intel Corp. Pentium III processors in a 3U (5.25-inch) chassis.
In addition to hefty processing power, the PE 1655MC boasts plenty of memory and storage: Each blade can scale up to 2GB of error-correcting code synchronous dynamic RAM, with two dual in-line memory module slots and more than 140GB of storage with two SCSI hard drives.
The on-board Ultra320 SCSI RAID controller allows the drives to be configured as RAID 0 and 1 for better performance and increased data protection. In addition, the Remote Install software bundled with the PE 1655MC eases blade management and makes new blade provisioning a snap.
—Henry Baltazar and Francis Chu
: Storage, WLANs, Network Management Tools”>
Few products can match the manageability and flexibility of the McData Corp. Sphereon 4500 Fibre Channel switch.
With its ability to upgrade firmware and capacity on the fly, without inducing downtime or performance degradation, the Sphereon 4500 has raised the bar for all hardware manufacturers.
On the software side, storage management continues to be a hotbed of activity. We have been particularly impressed with the improvements we have seen in the SRM (storage resource management) market.
All too often, IT managers fall into the trap of trying to solve problems with additional hardware. Using SRM software, administrators can quickly see who is using how much storage and which RAID units have the most available capacity. Fujitsu Software Technology Corp.s Softek Storage Manager is a great choice in this area. Although its $25,000 price may seem steep, this product will likely pay for itself very quickly by, for example, hunting down potentially illegal content that wastes precious storage space and by giving storage managers the ability to quantify storage usage and create chargeback policies to justify budgets. —Henry Baltazar
No ones sure whether 802.11b will be replaced by 802.11a before 802.11g gets baked, so Netgear Inc.s WAB102 a/b access point is a bargain—and safe—buy at $250.
Linksys Group Inc.s WRT54G wireless 802.11g device is also a good buy but maybe only for the short term. At $130, its certainly a bargain. However, the 802.11g specification has not been ratified yet, so there is no guarantee that the Linksys gear will work with other 802.11g devices (see eWEEK Labs review of 802.11g-based hardware).
Securing wireless LANs in the enterprise requires comprehensive planning and the use of tools that will fill the authentication and encryption gaps in the 802.11 standard. VPN (virtual private network)-based security appliances provide IT managers with an easy-to-use solution for locking down even the most complex heterogeneous wireless networks.
One such product is ReefEdge Inc.s Connect System, which helps IT managers raise the security bar of any 802.11 WLAN (a, b or g) with a robust, scalable and easy-to-manage appliance system. Connect System provides built-in encryption for better performance, granular access control management and persistent roaming capabilities. Connect System comprises Connect Server, which costs $7,500, and Edge Controller, which starts at $1,800—certainly not chump change, but the peace of mind the system affords is worth it.
—John Taschek and Francis Chu
Network Management Tools
Network problems that happen on or near the physical layer can often be tracked down and figured out with tools that are easy on the budget. Youll use them again and again, with their utility more than justifying their cost.
Protocol analyzers from a variety of companies, including Fluke Networks Inc., WildPackets Inc., Network Associates Inc. and Network Instruments LLC, work with wire-line and wireless network infrastructures and are reliable standbys.
One tool weve used in the lab often is Flukes LinkRunner Network Multimeter, a handheld testing device for front-line technicians.
This device should be one of the first out of the bag when a connectivity problem arises. After the two most important trouble-shooting questions—”Is it plugged in?” and “Is it turned on?”—are answered in the affirmative, the next question should be: “Is the connection good?”And thats the one LinkRunner can answer.
LinkRunner is priced at the high end of the spectrum for products of its kind, but, even so, its only $495. Competitor LanMaster 30 from Psiber Data Systems Inc. is priced at around $200.
We always ask protocol analyzer vendors, “What problem can be seen in the air that cant be seen on the wire or by using the no-cost software that comes with the wireless access point?” The usual answer is a pause. And then comes the deluge of desperate explanations.
There are two legitimate and cost-effective reasons for using a wireless protocol analyzer: conducting site surveys and scouting for rogue access points. AirMagnet Inc.s AirMagnet Handheld is a great tool for these tasks. The $2,495 tool is a best buy as far as this category is concerned. Three-thousand bucks is a small price to pay to either secure your companys WLAN or make sure one doesnt go up without your knowledge.