Intel's vPro brand debuts in HP's dc7700 desktop, manages the system even when off

The primary goal of AMT is to strip the cost associated with IT personnel who all too often must make "deskside" visits in order to remedy a problem with a desktop system.
Written by David Berlind, Inactive

It's been about 10 months since Intel took a nasty dive on Wall Street at the same time the company started talking about a new brand it was calling vPro. Back then, I did a podcast interview of Intel’s Digital Office Platform Group general manager Gregory Bryant (audio and full blog post here) whose message was that, for businesses, vPro would sufficiently differentiate some systems from others (especially Intel-based systems from AMD-based ones) that IT managers would begin to look for the brand as a guarantee of certain management functionality.... (continued below).

  See our video of the dc7700 in action: To get a better idea of how HP's  implementation of Intel's Active Management Technology works, David paid a visit to one of Intel's chipmaking facilities in Hudson, MA for a personal demo. But you're free to eavesdrop on his visit and line of questioning. Just check out the video or the podcast.   Image Gallery: Want images? Have we got images. In addition to the video and audio, we've prepared a gallery of images that show the various dc7700 form factors as well as Intel's Active Management Technology in action (being accessed by Altiris' systems management solutions).  

Although Intel won't go out of its way to split hairs for you, vPro itself is not a technology. It's an Intel brand and for a system to bear the vPro imprimatur, it must, at the bare minimum, include three specific Intel technologies; a Core 2 Duo microprocessor, the Q965 chipset, and Intel's 82566 Gigabit Ethernet technology.

If the strategy sounds familiar, it should. Ripped directly from the pages of Intel's Centrino playbook, the vPro brand is designed to woo system manufacturers into using all of the three of the above components in their business class systems. Part of the seduction will no doubt be a heavy marketing campaign around the vPro brand (think "vPro Inside") that, like the smoke and mirrors behind the Centrino brand, will look to convince IT managers that the vPro sticker is necessary in order to benefit from Intel's latest greatest management technology: its Active Management Technology or AMT.

But like with Centrino, where consumers were led to believe that in order for their notebooks to wirelessly connect to certain hotspots, they needed Centrino-branded systems (they didn't.. they just needed an 802.11b-compliant WiFi radio) along with the three Intel components that added up to Centrino, business class systems won't necessarily need all three of the aformentioned components in order to get the benefits of Intel's AMT. What a system will need, at the bare minimum is Intel's Q965 chipset -- the component that actually contains the AMT code. Should IT managers however start demanding vPro-compliant systems the net result for Intel would be pretty good since, in order for systems to get the vPro sticker, manufacturers will have to install three relatively top-of-line components (read: higher profits to Intel) into those systems. As an example, within HP's Compaq line of dc7700 series desktop systems, all of which have the Q965 chipset as well as the same 82566 Gigabit Ethernet technology in them, the least expensive of the bunch (the dc7700-EN342UT, with a 2.8 Ghz Pentium D dual core processor) can be had for $729 while its vPro counterpart (the dc7700-EN341UT with the Core 2 Duo, pictured right) costs $969.

All this said, seeing the AMT technology in action is actually pretty impressive. As you can see in the video (also available in an audio only version) I made during my visit to one of Intel's chipmaking facilities in Hudson, MA, HP's dc7700 with the Q965 chipset hangs together quite nicely with the free management utilities that unlock the capabilities of Intel's AMT tecnology. Those utilities were co-developed by HP and systems management solution provider Altiris (Symantec just announced it would be acquiring Altiris). Separately, Altiris offers some more industrial strength tools for managing AMT-enabled systems for an additional cost of approximately $18 per managed workstation according to the company's senior platform strategist Kevin Unbedacht.  

So what exactly is AMT and why is it so special? The primary goal of AMT is to strip the cost associated with IT personnel who all too often must make "deskside" visits in order to remedy a problem with a desktop system. The more remediation that can be done remotely, the more money that can be saved. Before AMT, IT managers had other technologies at their disposal for remotely managing desktops. But, for the most part, they required a functioning operating system and special management or remote control software agents in order for an IT manager to probe around and figure out what was wrong. Unfortunately, if the system in question was hung or its operating system was in some sort of other non-functional state, the number of remote management options dropped to zero pretty quickly and it wasn't long before an IT person was on their feet.

Enter AMT.

The A in AMT stands for Active and the basic idea is that as long as the system has access to power, there's always some part of it -- the AMT part -- that's active, that's network addressable, and that's remotely accessible by management software that's designed to reach out to it. As can be seen in our image gallery which includes screen shots of several Altiris applications in action, even when off, an IT manager can remotely gain access to a machine.

What might that manager do in an effort to avoid a deskside visit? When an AMT-compliant management application accesses an AMT-compliant system that's off or on and hung, not only can it tell that system to reboot itself, it can redirect the system to boot itself from an image other than the one that's on its hard drive. For example, it can redirect it to some CD image, to an image sitting on a shared network drive, or even an image that's on the management workstation. Provided the IT manager can use the image redirection to get the system minimally operational, certain remedies can be applied (eg: replacing files) in hopes of restoring a corrupted operating system. Along the way, AMT enables access to a plethora of asset and log data pertaining to the system: data that was once only available if the system was fully operational. 

Prior to AMT, some of these tasks were addressed by a combination of Intel's Intelligent Platform Management Interface (IPMI) and Wake-On-LAN technologies. According to Intel's director of Client Platform Innovation Ketan Sampat though, IMPI never got any traction as a desktop technology and, according to Altiris' Unbedacht, Wake-On-LAN had two significant shortcomings: first, its transmissions across the network were insecure. Second, it couldn't gracefully jump network segments. With AMT, segment jumping is more easily accomplished because the active component is addressible through the physical system's last known IP address (as opposed to Wake-On-LAN which involves "Magic Packets" that are broadcast to a specific LAN segment or the entire Local Area Network). Not only do IP addresses represent a much more targeted approach, the IP-based AMT transmissions can be encrypted, thus providing an added element of security.

What's the downside of AMT (and vPro)? To the extent that AMT is only accessible through a collection of APIs published by Intel, the market must rely on developers like Altiris to develop applications that make use of those APIs. Today, the AMT-ecosystem is in an embryonic state. HP wisely jumped on the idea of building the first vPro-branded systems (yet another opportunity that Dell shouldn't have missed) as did Altiris with its solutions. But if you're not an Altiris or HP customer, then you might have to become one if you can't wait for your existing solution providers to get on the bandwagon. One other shortcoming of AMT? As more and more people move to notebook systems, those systems are currently not manageable through the AMT interface because AMT-enabled notebooks won't be available until later in 2007. 

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