Intel improves desktop security with vPro upgrade

Intel Corp. released an upgrade to its vPro bundle of automated PC management features on Monday, saying the new package delivers better IT security than the original product launched last year.

IT administrators who manage computers containing the new “Weybridge” processor and chipset bundle can improve security by automatically sending software patches to thousands of corporate PCs, Intel said. They can also save money on the electric bill by instructing those PCs to enter a sleep state, or save time by diagnosing a broken computer remotely.

PC vendors Hewlett-Packard Co., Dell Inc. and Lenovo Group Ltd. all announced new desktops based on vPro in conjunction with Intel’s announcement, officially called Intel vPro Processor Technology for 2007.

To qualify for the vPro label, a desktop must use Intel’s Core 2 Duo processor of the E6550 level or better, a Q35 Express chipset, and other hardware-based networking and virtualization technologies from Intel, said Greg Bryant, general manager of Intel’s digital office platform division, during a briefing in Boston.

Although Intel is launching the new vPro bundle in a desktop configuration, it plans to launch a version for notebooks by the first half of 2008, when it upgrades its current “Santa Rosa” Centrino Pro product to a new version called “Montevina.”

Compared to the original “Averill” vPro platform launched in September 2006, those upgraded components will make it easier for administrators to manage large fleets of computers. But perhaps the biggest improvement will be in security, Bryant said.

The new vPro system uses virtualization to run certain security software in a protected section of the hard drive, uses time-based filters to detect the patterns of an attack by a virus or hacker, and uses on-chip memory to store network security credentials in hardware instead of vulnerable software.

Those features will not replace conventional software security applications, but are designed to work alongside products from Symantec Corp. and other providers. As security threats have grown more sophisticated, administrators need a combination of software and hardware to defeat them, he said.

“Much security today is based on threats running in software on the OS, which has to be working for them to be effective,” Bryant said. “Some things, like how memory is accessed, is controlled by the chipset. So if we don’t do it, who is going to do it?” Compared to the existing vPro product, Weybridge includes enough improvements to attract new corporate buyers, though it will be less useful for small and medium-sized businesses, one analyst said.

“You’re not going to see SMBs using this, with one guy reviewing the management console each night. But in the enterprise environment, this kind of thing is pretty critical to keeping costs down,” said Dean McCarron, an analyst with Mercury Research. “The last thing you want to do is go out and visit the desktops when you’ve got 5,000 of them.”

Reducing physical desktop visits was one of the primary reasons that Sutter Health, a nonprofit network of health-care providers in northern California, adopted desktops with vPro 2006.

The task of managing the group’s 7,500 desktops and several thousand laptops is complicated since their five hospitals and 40 clinics are spread across a 100 mile radius (160.9 kilometers), said Tim Hearing, regional vice president and chief information officer for Sutter’s Sacramento Sierra region.

The organization recently finished a test of the 2006 vPro and now plans to purchase several thousand HP desktops using the new vPro. “We have a few hundred of the 2006 model, just to do a pilot and play around and see if it’s worth paying the few extra bucks. And at least for us, the answer was ‘yes’ since we have such a decentralized environment,” Hearing said.

“Even if we had vPro for just 10 percent of our units, that’s still 700 PCs. You need quite a bit of windshield time when you have to go out and touch 700 devices.”

HP will offer vPro on its new HP Compaq dc7800 desktop PC, available in three chassis shapes, including an ultra-small form factor that can hang from the back of a flat panel monitor. Dell will deploy the 2007 vPro technology in its OptiPlex 755 PC, offering users a choice of five processor speeds, hard-drive storage up to 250G bytes, including a minitower, desktop, small form factor and ultra-small form factor. Lenovo will offer vPro on its ThinkCentre M57p desktop and in the future on its ThinkPad T61 notebook. None of the companies provided shipping dates or prices.

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