Each year, eWEEK Labs singles out the products that stood out in our testing in the past 12 months. We focus on the offerings that had the biggest impact in their spaces and that did the most to move enterprise technology forward.
Product of the Year: Apple iPad
It was the hottest thing in computing since the original Apple Macintosh. It was an evergreen topic of conversation, from its unveiling in the first week of January 2010 to holiday dinners at year’s end. It is already changing the landscape of mobile computing and inspiring numerous imitators.
It, as you may have guessed, is the Apple iPad. It is our Product of the Year.
Although this first iPad model has been the butt of jokes about being “the iPod Touch that doesn’t fit in a pocket,” it feels polished and even mature. Apple, realizing that simply scaling up an iPhone wouldn’t do, has instead turned the tablet market on its ear.
We’ve kicked the tires on a number of tablet concepts; many of these used a Windows variant for tablets, but despite a commanding lead in the field, Microsoft and its allied system builders could never figure out how to make tablets attractive to businesses and consumers, beyond some niche use cases.
But Apple has this sort of thing in its DNA: Its customers confirm that good physical design and an instinctual user interface are what attract them to the Mac, then to the iPod, to the iPhone and now to the iPad. The handful of things that Apple can do better in the next iPad are actually pretty simple: Adding built-in cameras, replacing the now-blocky screen with a larger version of the iPhone 4’s Retina display and giving customers a choice of carrier for mobile data services all come to mind.
Compared with what competitors must do to catch up with the original iPad, to say nothing of the forthcoming iPad 2, Apple’s challenges are more about keeping momentum than gaining it. Even though Apple will lose its lock on the tablet market in 2011, cheap tablets won’t make many inroads among the company’s target customers, and Apple’s leverage in the mobile market sets it-and the iPad-apart from everyone else in this game.
Cisco CleanAir, a spectrum analysis feature set comprising recent-generation Aironet 3500 series access points and Version 7.x Unified Wireless Network software on the APs and Wireless LAN Controllers, delivers outstanding RF (radio frequency) reporting, tracking and assessment capabilities to help wireless administrators build robust wireless networks to host mission-critical applications and dense endpoint deployments.
I gave Cisco and CleanAir eWEEK’s Analyst’s Choice award when I reviewed the products back in August, as I was blown away by CleanAir’s interferer detection and fingerprinting, as well as the network’s automated self-healing capabilities and the integration with Cisco’s desktop RF analysis software. But I was most impressed with CleanAir’s ability to distill the findings into an understandable and actionable framework, allowing wireless administrators and senior executives alike to get a better understanding of the deleterious effects of radio interference without requiring them to get lost in the weeds of spectrograms, fast Fourier diagrams and the like. Unless they want to.
One can certainly argue the value of Cisco CleanAir, given the massive hardware upgrade requirements needed both at the network edge and in the network core, as CleanAir requires deploying brand new Cisco APs and it really needs a Mobility Services Engine at the network core to provide optimal functionality. Indeed, integrated (albeit excellent) spectrum analysis probably should not be at the top of the feature wish list when considering a new WiFi solution, as questions of network architecture, airtime fairness and client density should be paramount.
Despite all that, CleanAir is one of the best conceived and best executed wireless LAN features I’ve seen in years, and Cisco deserves commendation for leveraging its acquired Cognio technology in such a thoughtful and groundbreaking way.
Cisco FabricPath; Office for Mac
In 2010 Cisco turned on yet another new feature in the Nexus 7000 platform that basically eliminates the ancient and universally deployed spanning tree protocol from network designs, thus enabling much larger Layer 2 networking domains within the data center. The FabricPath Switching System is the foundation of a push by Cisco to combine NX-OS software features with the hardware capabilities of the Nexus 7000 F1 series module to build the next generation of high-performance network systems.
Make no mistake, unlike incremental feature changes Cisco previously released for the Nexus 7000 platform including OTV (Overlay Transport Virtualization), FabricPath is a much bigger jump up in terms of bandwidth, network performance and virtualization feature support. At the same time, Cisco went out of its way to ensure that FabricPath-enabled Nexus devices and software features wouldn’t interfere with existing network implementations. Thus, while FabricPath is a radical departure from network designs built around the spanning tree protocol, it should be on the “evaluate now” track for large data center managers.
When used together, FabricPath-enabled modules will benefit organizations that want to implement workload mobility such as VMware vMotion in a much larger resource pool, while also gaining significant bandwidth and N+1 redundancy and fast network convergence after a link failure.
I did not test this particular feature but saw it play out in Cisco-related reviews that I wrote in 2010. During prerelease conversations with Cisco engineers that included a demonstration of the first-generation release, I noticed the performance numbers were pretty astounding. FabricPath-enabled modules use active-active links between devices-losing the line blocking that spanning tree required-and instead use ECMP (equal-cost multipath) to direct traffic.
Taking on the legacy limitations of spanning tree earned FabricPath a place among the best products of 2010.
Microsoft Office for Mac
Microsoft Office for Mac took a wrong turn with the 2008 release. I remember looking at that version of MacOffice and deciding that I was going to live without it. I don’t regret my choice, and my inner 3-year-old’s temper tantrum was rewarded this year, when the company released Office for Mac 2011, with a Mac version of Outlook and the return of VBA (Visual Basic for Applications) support to Apple desktops and notebooks.
The core applications of the suite-Excel, PowerPoint and Word-are almost completely gotcha-free when it comes to sharing files with colleagues who use Office for Windows, and are such solid tools at this stage of their maturity that Microsoft will have to do something pretty spectacular in the next release. Outlook still needs some work in areas such as mailbox import and export, but it’s a vast improvement on the Entourage mail client from preceding releases of Office for Mac.
Although Office for Mac is supposed to take its feature cues from the Windows release, Office 2011 went beyond that boundary to take advantage of some of the Mac platform’s 3D visualization tools and media support functions. Perhaps the most notable of these are the 3D layer views of PowerPoint slides and Word documents, but the developers on Microsoft’s Mac team outdid themselves in a number of areas by understanding the Mac interface and leveraging it rather than imposing their will upon it.
PowerPivot; RHEL 6
One of my favorite products of the year was Microsoft’s free add-in for Excel 2010, PowerPivot. The tool, which adds a new sort of spreadsheet option to Excel, first grabbed my attention for the way it enables users to work with much larger sets of data than is possible with Excel alone. In one case, I used PowerPivot to load and browse through a data set that ran 3.9 million rows-about four times Excel’s existing upper limit-and I had no more trouble scrolling around in the set than I would with a spreadsheet of only several hundred rows.
Typically, bumping up against the row limitations of your spreadsheet application indicates that a database is probably a better tool for the job. But PowerPivot provides users with a great way to take care of business without surrendering the familiarity of their favored tool. I used the product to tap data in Access databases, in flat files and in MySQL databases, through an ODBC driver, and in all cases the tool performed excellently.
What’s more, the tool’s SharePoint integration element gives users an easy way to share their work with others in their organizations.
Red Hat Enterprise Linux 6
Linux and open-source software is looming larger than ever in the enterprise space, and no product casts a longer shadow in these quarters than Red Hat Enterprise Linux. Whether it’s consumed directly from Red Hat or in the form of one of its downstream incarnations, such as the freely available CentOS or Oracle’s Unbreakable Linux, the innovations and enhancements that go into RHEL have a major impact on the IT world.
RHEL 6, which began shipping last month, stands out for its core improvements around scalability, resource management and virtualization, highlighting Linux features such as Control Groups and the KVM (Kernel-based Virtual Machine) capabilities now baked into the kernel.
What’s more, the system ships with a slate of updated open-source software components that stand to make life easier for developers and system administrators who wish to take advantage of recent features without leaving Red Hat’s support and certification umbrella to do so. And even for those operating outside of Red Hat’s service umbrella, the 10-year support term that Red Hat has pledged for RHEL-and the nature of open-source licensing-offers a strong assurance that products and projects can count on these components for some time to come.
Rove Mobile Admin; Chatter; VMware View
Rove Mobile Admin
Rove Mobile Admin proved to be an excellent way for data center administrators to extend enterprise network oversight and controls outside of the office, providing a mobile presentation layer for various enterprise applications and systems that can be accessed via most popular modern smartphone operating systems. The Mobile Admin presentation layer is enabled by a middleware server brokering connections from mobile devices on one side, while on the other side accessing the native APIs and instrumentations used by a variety of enterprise systems.
In my May review of Mobile Admin 5.1 Professional, I was impressed by the integrations provided to remotely manage our VMware vSphere and Hyper-V virtual infrastructure stacks, as well as our Microsoft Exchange and BlackBerry Enterprise Server implementations. On the client side at that time, Rove worked great with Windows Mobile, Apple iPhone and BlackBerry devices.
In the months since that review, Rove has updated Mobile Admin to Version 6.0, adding support for CA Service Desk Manager in addition to the already existing support for management and alerting platforms such as Nagios, BMC Remedy and Microsoft System Center Operations Manager. Version 6.0 also adds a dashboard that aggregates alarms and notifications from all of those management systems. And on the client side, Rove now counts Android among the supported mobile operating systems.
Rove offers a few versions of Mobile Admin. The aforementioned Professional ($595 per user) lights up connectivity to all Rove-supported enterprise servers and platforms, while Professional Plus ($795 per user) adds access to the management dashboard. Basics, which costs $295 per user account, offers remote access via SSH (Secure Shell) and RDP (Remote Desktop Protocol), plus various Microsoft server management and monitoring capabilities such as access to event log or File Explorer, or to reboot machines or restart services.
Lastly, Rove now offers single application-specific licenses via Rove Gateway + Apps, which allow a single user to manage either Windows event logs, virtual infrastructures or Exchange servers from an iPhone or iPad, with licenses ranging from free to $40 each.
At the beginning of 2010, I talked about the importance and difficulties of maintaining a personal and corporate identity online. Many of my concerns were addressed when Salesforce.com in the Winter ’11 release of its Chatter social media tool included the ability to filter the Chatter stream according to groups, opportunities and cases while also adding Facebook-like recommendations for people and groups to follow in the social media platform. And in a nod to knowledge workers who may not be up on how to use social media, a newly minted “What to do Next” box has now appeared prominently at the top right of the Chatter screen.
In my test use of the Chatter, which is included in the Winter ’11 release of all Salesforce.com editions, it became clear that Chatter fulfills my requirements for a business-class communication tool that can be securely and reliably used to promote social interaction without losing control of the business opportunities that are the subject of conversation. Winter ’11 was released to Salesforce.com customers on Oct. 22. The feature is available at no extra subscription charge for all editions. Organizations can add Chatter-only users for $15 per month per user.
Advances made during 2010 to Chatter set the stage for enterprise-class social collaboration.
VMware View 4.5
Virtual desktop infrastructure products have a harder row to hoe when compared with their server counterparts. VMware View 4.5, however, stepped up in September with enterprise features that enable local mode and workload customization features for $250 per concurrent user. The View Enterprise regular edition without local mode costs $150 per concurrent user.
While VMware View 4 played with a feature that was called “Offline Desktop,” View 4.5 fully embraces disconnected desktop operation through what is now called Local Mode. I was able to install a VMware View Client with Local Mode on a laptop, and log on and check out a virtual machine that I was then able to use while disconnected from the View infrastructure. This new local mode makes it possible for employees to take their work on the road while still enabling IT to have control over the desktop configuration.
I’m recognizing VMware View 4.5 as a “best of” product in 2010, but I expect even more progress in the coming year. Among other factors, license costs need to continue their downward trend to bring overall acquisition costs below those associated with traditional desktop systems. This is true for desktop virtualization tools in general, including those from Microsoft and Citrix. In part this is because desktop virtualization still requires some type of physical host and, in the case of local mode systems, a physical host that is already encumbered with an operating system license and associated maintenance costs.
Desktop virtualization tools in general, as foreshadowed in VMware View 4.5, are poised to handle workloads including full motion video and telephony applications. VMware uses the PCoIP protocol and special hardware to handle intense graphics workloads. Regardless of any future trajectory, VMware View 4.5 showed that it is possible to operate a secure, manageable and scalable virtual desktop infrastructure in 2010.