Im not a big fan of software programs spawned by hardware vendors, and to date IBM Corp. has done little to change my mind. However, I recently learned about some new developments that could make me rethink Big Blues efforts.
The concept behind IBMs ThinkVantage program has always been sound: Corporations need to control costs, protect users, deploy purchased technology promptly, and realize benefits from purchasing new laptop and desktop computers.
Each vendor has its own method of addressing this challenge. IBM, Dell and Hewlett-Packard have been the most aggressive about creating specialized tools and services for these tasks. Dells solution includes services from partners and software from Altiris. HP also uses Altiris as well as OpenView, although it taps its own services to drive innovative technologies like PC blades.
Unlike its competitors, IBMs entire solution is homegrown, but the company hasnt always seemed prepared to back it up. Until recently, the software was poorly integrated and enjoyed almost no marketing. To add insult to injury, the tools often didnt work.
I sit on IBMs advisory council, which meets every six months. Twice a year, we have heard that IBM understands these problems and plans to address them. Until now, they never were.
So whats changed? The IBM PC Division has a new executive manager named Steve Ward. Hes IBMs most powerful “fixit” guy, and he has been in the job long enough to begin to fix some historic problems. Ward was previously Gerstners go-to guy, and has a direct line to current IBM CEO Sam Palmisano. Hes connected to every part of the company, and has been bringing different resources together to make the PC Division (PCD) a success.
After years of neglect, IBM actually looks like it has the corporate mandate, and the corporate support, to make these tools—and the PC Group—actually successful.
For example, IBM has integrated IBM Global Services into the ThinkVantage program—rolling out a low-cost consulting program designed to teach IT how to deploy and use the tools. This addresses the largest problem with any vendor-supplied tools: Most customers try to learn how to use them while they are deploying them.
What makes the tools so important? Several years back, I made a big deal about the cost of deploying new hardware, specifically the effort it took to move users to new machines. I also warned that we had to do a better job of restoring broken machines. Today IT either spends hours diagnose and fixing a problem, or simply forces a user to re-image the hard drive—not great for IT-user relations. IBMs tools address both those problems.
IBMs ThinkVantage Tools
System Migration Assistant, probably my personal favorite in IBMs tool chest, provides a way to migrate a users settings and files—either between a client and server or between two connected PCs—dramatically lowering the time and cost of acquiring and deploying new hardware.
IBM Rescue and Recovery (formerly known as Rapid Restore) is a particularly impressive offering that foreshadows some of the capabilities Phoenix Technology and Intel plan for future PCs. Pushing beyond software such as Microsofts System Restore and Symantecs Go Back, Rescue and Recovery creates a secure repository on your PC where it maintains a complete image of your machine and a series of restore points. It also allows you to enter a pre-boot mode which (much like Go Back) allows you to recover a completely trashed machine. But unlike Go Back, you can actually launch a browser and get online help or forward a file that you otherwise wouldnt be able to access – even while the system is down.
Unfortunately, this solution runs from the hard drive, so if the drive itself fails you are still out of luck. Eventually this pre-boot environment will be in BIOS, but a hard drive failure will still destroy data that isnt backed up.
To render those hard drives less vulnerable, IBM has a unique (and kind of cool) hardware offering called the Active Protection System – implemented on the new Thinkpad X40.
Read a full review of the stunning new X40 at PCMag.com.
It uses an accelerometer to sense movement, and it locks the drive heads out of the way; if the laptop is dropped, the heads dont pound into the disk, breaking the drive. Even hardened notebooks dont have this technology.
Other tools in this set include Image Ultra, which helps you manage drive images; Access Connections, which helps users move seamlessly between wired and wireless networks; and Software Delivery Assistant, which assists you with the deployment of new software.
One other interesting component is the IBM Embedded Security System, which complies with the current specification from the Trusted Computing Group. I covered the TCG extensively in a prior column, but in brief it creates an encrypted repository on the hard drive for storing sensitive data. (I also sit on the advisory council for the TCG, and IBM is the vendor that has been most aggressive about supporting the related specification in hardware.)
Given current security concerns, I cant understand why only HP provides a similar offering today. (Intel makes a compliant motherboard but few vendors besides IBM and HP use this technology.)
The increased emphasis on support tools is just one example of how Ward has energized all of IBM behind the PC Division. Another example of that support: IBM is finally rolling out a full advertising campaign (including its first TV spots in three years) to push its program.
For the first time in years it seems like IBM is investing in the PC business, instead of seeking a graceful exit. IBM is one of two companies that would diminish the PC business by its departure—the other is Apple Computer. IBMs revitalization of its PC business is the highlight of my month.