Software serves administrators on the fly

Expand Beyond Corp., a three-year-old Dallas-based outfit, is aiming to enable Windows administrators to manage and troubleshoot their networks through mobile devices, such as Palm handhelds, or Microsoft Pocket PC devices.

Expand’s latest software, called PocketAdmin for Windows, relies on an application server and a gateway using Microsoft .NET technology, to give managers access to their Active Directory and Exchange servers.

IT workforces are becoming more mobile, so products like PocketAdmin should appeal to some users, said Stephen Drake, an analyst with market research firm IDC in Framingham, Mass.

“A product like that could save a lot of time and resources for folks who might be on 24-hour alert,” he said. “Maybe they need to reboot a system or do something simple like seeing what the alert is about.”

Craig Welch, a database administrator with energy firm Cinergy Corp., has been using Expand Beyond’s mobile database products for over two years. He said the tools allow him to respond to alerts faster than he can with his laptop.

“It’s allowed me to free up on after-hours support mainly,” he said. “Or on my lunch hour I can stay connected and if I get paged, I can start and shut down the database, add a data file.”

The only drawback to troubleshooting with a handheld device is that the limited screen size can make it difficult to navigate, Welch said. But he added that Expand Beyond has built navigation tools into its software, such as a search function, that make it easier to find the necessary network areas.

The heart of PocketAdmin is the application server and .NET gateway, explained Bryan Nairn, product manager with Expand Beyond. The server takes HTTP or HTTPS requests and formats them for the .NET gateway. The gateway then communicates via Active Directory Service Interfaces at the Active Directory level, or via Windows Management Instrumentation at the local machine level. Information sent back to the mobile device goes through reverse formatting.

With a wireless connection, security can be a concern so administrators can layer several security systems onto their PocketAdmin links.

At the most basic level, PacketAdmin uses existing Active Directory user accounts and authentication. If users want more assurance than that, the software has been tested with a variety of mobile virtual private network systems, Nairn said. PocketAdmin also integrates with RSA’s SecureID product if users want two-factor authentication.

PocketAdmin is only the latest in a stable of mobile offerings from Expand Beyond. The company has previously rolled out software for managing Oracle databases, SQL Server and IBM’s DB2. The company also has an earlier version of PocketAdmin called PocketAdmin Console that allows users to access any VT100-compliant network device at the command line level.

In the near future, Expand Beyond plans to add more functionality for administrators of Microsoft Exchange environments. With PocketAdmin, users can access Exchange servers and restart them, but they can’t see mail queues or mailboxes – something the future software would address, Nairn said.

The company also has relationships with BMC Software and Computer Associates and plans to wirelessly enable some of their offerings, including CA’s Unicenter management platform.

In addition to appealing to administrators on the go, Expand Beyond is hoping to work its way into companies’ business continuity plans. Firms could use Expand Beyond’s products to help keep their networks running as they moved from one location to another in an emergency event, noted Rachel Greene, the company’s vice-president of marketing.

PocketAdmin for Windows will be available this month. Pricing will vary depending on the size of the implementation. Licensing for 10 machines would cost about US$2,500, Nairn said.