Before the IT industry started using the term 'appliance', resellers were selling them anyway. The switches and routers that control traffic on networks and the firewalls that patrol the boundaries between them have been around for years.
These are good examples of what we today call appliances. In IT, the term appliance is used for a dedicated computer optimised to carry out specific, simple functions. They have only the components required to carry out the tasks in hand, all the required software is pre-installed, they are easy to install and require minimal configuration.
Appliances are designed to be very good at performing the function they are designed for, which is usually simple, repetitive and high-volume. They are usually better at doing this work than multi-purpose servers that can be configured for a wide range of functions.
Because they are easy to install, many resellers accept them as a delivery mechanism for solutions. Others remain cynical, perhaps believing their ease of use undermines their value-add.
Appliances are ideally suited to applications that sit on networks. Firewalls are the applications most widely recognised as being suited to delivery as an appliance.
But even this most quintessential of network applications is sometimes delivered as traditional licensed software, albeit for the PCs of home users or employees on the move. This underlines an important point about appliances: for many applications they are an alternative, not de-facto, mode of delivery.
Today, after firewalls, resellers most commonly sell appliances designed for filtering content entering and leaving an organisation, much of it email. A few years ago businesses mainly used to worry about outgoing email containing confidential information or abusive language.
A number of software applications were developed for monitoring outgoing email, such as ClearSwift's MimeSweeper and NetIQ's MailMarshal. But in recent years a different kind of threat has emerged in the form of huge volumes of incoming email: spam.
Server-based software products, originally designed to monitor outgoing email, have been adapted to try to cope with this. But for many firms the only way of dealing with the problem has been to address it on the network, providing a new opportunity for the appliance.
Killing spam is an ideal application for a network-based appliance. A number of products are available and they are becoming more sophisticated.
Today, network-based spam-filtering appliances can enforce an incoming and outgoing email usage policy, ensuring secure delivery and providing safe access from remote locations and unknown devices.
But the appliance is not getting a clear run against software solutions in this market. It is being challenged by vendors that offer content filtering as an outsourced service. Vendors such as MessageLabs and BlackSpider take away the pain of owning hardware altogether, for content filtering at least.
They deliver your email pre-scrubbed and can check outgoing content and enforce policy, allowing their remote users to configure the service as required.
Undeterred, appliances are now moving beyond the network to run central IT functions. Here, their role is unrecognised by many. Ayrsoft's iconServer is an appliance aimed at SMEs. It has email management and simple CRM capabilities, as well as the security and networking capabilities you would expect.
Appliances that provide core IT functions are not just for small businesses. Mirapoint's Message Server is a dedicated email appliance, an alternative to software such as Microsoft Exchange and IBM's Lotus Domino. It is a high-performance email server, capable of handling huge message volumes with minimal intervention required to get it installed.
Mirapoint is now making inroads into the corporate and public sectors. Many resellers accept that appliances are suited to the delivery of certain central IT functions, such as email management.
Appliances such as iconServer might seem to be going beyond the remit of an appliance, of doing a few simple tasks well. This is true, but they are easy to install and maintain. Mirapoint's Message Server is hardly a network application, but it is optimised to do a few simple, high-volume tasks.
For now, more complex applications that businesses want to tweak to suit their own needs will continue to be delivered on multi-purpose servers.
Bob Tarzey is service director at Quocirca.
Quocirca (01753) 855 794
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