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Intel vPro, McAfee, And The Atom Platform

Intel vPro: Three Generations Of Remote Management
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A long time ago, Intel realized that security and support are significant costs in the IT world. Running down to a user's desk to help troubleshoot a problem has gone out of vogue, replaced by IT service desks on-premise (in the case of enterprises) and located remotely (for many SMBs). Sometimes a phone call is all it takes to fix a customer's problem. Other times, a suite of support tools like vPro and AMT are the answer. And now, the most expensive type of support is break/fix, where a power supply or memory module goes bad, necessitating a trip to the source.

With the recent acquisition of McAfee, Intel made a strong statement that it wants to make an impact on the security market. Soon, it'll be able to provide a vertically-integrated hardware and software stack for desktop and laptop management.

Interestingly, McAfee's competitors are already looking to the next generation of device support. Apple's iPad (along with the iPhone and various Android-based devices) continue to gain the blessing of corporate executives. Holdout IT departments that don't support those devices are starting to realize that policy-driven standardization on Windows and BlackBerry devices isn't going to cut it for much longer. As a result, many organizations that still don't allow that foreign hardware onto the network are at least evaluating what it'd take to support those platforms.

Current-generation iOS and Android devices utilize ARM, not Intel architectures. That means there's already built-in demand for third-party security firms to build a security and management software stack that caters to the ARM market. Moreover, with Windows 8 already confirmed to run on ARM-based SoCs, there might come a time when we see organizations move completely to ARM hardware where vPro does not play.

With this in mind, Intel needs to start enabling vPro on more of its hardware, particularly the Atom processors. That's a bit of a dangerous move for Intel. The sale of inexpensive Atom-based systems takes unit sales away from Intel’s higher-margin processor and chipset businesses. This is a classic example from Clayton M. Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail, where a low-end product cuts into the higher-end space (Intel’s 8088 was a classic case.)  

If you're familiar with the Innovator’s Dilemma, then you realize it means that, in order to sell a vertically-integrated security and management stack, Intel needs to expose vPro functionality on the Atom platform and embrace the resulting disruption. That development, coupled with lower-power Atom processors able to compete in the smartphone and tablet space, could empower an organization with one vendor's management and security suite across client devices. 

Closing Thoughts

Overall, we've seen Intel make great strides in incrementally adding features to vPro. Due to continued innovation in manufacturing and architecture, there are substantial performance benefits in shifting from Core 2 Duo to today's Core i5. Meanwhile, we're being exposed to higher-resolution KVM support, Anti-Theft technology, AES-NI, and Quick Sync.

The one notable downside is that you're compelled to pay for a management app like RealVNC Viewer Plus if you want to fully realize the platform's potential. Priced at $100, that's yet another cost adder to discourage already price-sensitive buyers. It certainly would be preferable to have an open-source alternative that could be easily integrated into management suites. With that said, when you compare the price of a single on-site visit, if RealVNC Viewer Plus saves even one trip, that customer is back in the black.

At the end of the day, an organization with a small office and a dedicated IT support staff probably wouldn't take advantage of vPro. For everyone else, though, there are some pretty clear benefits associated with the technology. Larger, more sprawled out organizations stand to save significantly by using remote management tools. At the other end of the spectrum, SMBs who can't pay their own IT person stand to achieve much faster recovery if a service provider can log right into problematic PCs, rather than having to make an office visit.

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