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Remote systems management; there's an app for that

Smartphone apps for the iPhone and Blackberry enable IT pros to manage data center systems management tasks remotely.

Smartphone apps that let IT pros manage virtual and physical servers, networks and software have become more than just cool parlor tricks. To some extent, they are actually useful.

For more on remote systems management:
Remote server administration tools: Manage your datacenter from a distance

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When he isn't near his computer and needs to perform simple Active Directory tasks, Dennis Rachiele, a senior network administrator at the Cranston, R.I.-based hydronic system and equipment manufacturer Taco Inc., uses Rove Mobile Inc.'s Rove Mobil Admin app on his iPhone.

This week a new version of Rove Mobile Inc.'s app (v5.1) hit with greater functionality, but for the most part, administrators use such software to perform simple tasks in Microsoft Active Directory. The app also works with Microsoft Exchange Server; Nagios; VMware ESX hosts and vCenter; other data center applications via Blackberry, Apple iTouch, or iPhone; and Windows Mobile for $599 per client.

"It provides functions for things [IT managers] get pinged for when they are in the grocery store, like restarting services, changing a password or doing diagnostic tasks that are reasonably easy to do," said Jason Gallagher, a product manager at Rove.

Rachiele, who also used the IC2 tool for Blackberry, said Rove's app is one of the more comprehensive IT management tools he has seen.

Other, less expensive smartphone applications for managing systems remotely include WinAdmin, which uses Microsoft's Remote Desktop Protocol and is available on Apple iTunes for $7.99. Network administration iPhone utilities are also available, and software companies have developed apps to manage their own products remotely. BMC Remedy users can use Aeroprise Inc.'s software to run the BMC Remedy IT Service Management suite on BlackBerry, iPhone or Windows Mobile devices.

The limits smartphone systems management
But no matter how many bells and whistles these smartphone apps have, their usefulness is limited by the size of the keys and the screen.

Rachiele said that the Rove app is "really helpful in a pinch," for example, but he hasn't messed with servers or his virtual infrastructure using the application. He prefers to do these tasks on his full-size computer.

Michael Finneran, the president of the independent mobile computing analysis firm, dBrn Associates in New York, said these mobile applications can change the way business is done when they are used as an integral part of the process. But remote management tools on phones are typically viewed as "cool toys" more than anything else, he said.

"We are geeks, so of course we are going to use these apps. Sure it's nice, it's cute, but the overall impact to business is going to be minimal," Finneran said. "And while it is useful to get the pings on your phone, we are always going to look for a laptop or a Web browser to access stuff instead of working on a phone. "

And where there is an Internet-connected PC or laptop, there is a way to manage infrastructure through a browser.

Systems management software that ships with servers, such as HP Systems Insight Manager, IBM Systems Director and Dell OpenManage, allow users to manage those respective boxes remotely with a Web browser.

"[Administrators] have been managing our environments remotely long before smartphone apps were invented, back to the days of pagers, and most of us already manage stuff through the Web browser on our phones," Finneran said.

That said, smartphones apps come in handy for the one-man-team administrators who run an entire data center on their own, Finneran said.

That's the case for Jason McAninch, who runs his own Kansas City, Kan.-based IT consultancy J-TEK. He is mobile 90% of the time and uses the remote desktop access tool from LogMeIn on his iPhone. That tool lets users log in from a browser on PCs or smartphone to do systems management, data backup, and customer support for PCs, servers, and more.

"I can do just about all aspects of my business from my iPhone, billing, invoicing, product research, e-mail, fax, shipping, credit card transactions and even remote into client's desktop, laptop or server," McAninch said.

McAninch prefers a full size keyboard and monitor, but the iPhone application also works for him.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Bridget Botelho, News Writer or follow @BridgetBotelho on Twitter.

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