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Managing computers and networks is pretty easy when your business consists of a few computers in one location. But as the computer count or the number of locations grows, you wonder how on earth you'll be able to keep track of everything, from inventory management to remote support to software patching.

Enter the management appliance. It's either a physical or virtual "black box" – actually a little Unix-based computer – that combines all of the functionality you need in a cost-effective, self-managing package. Like a toaster, you plug it in and it does its job with little or no user intervention, making IT easier to control. Customers simply purchase licences for the number of devices they want to manage.

Just ask Rahim B. Lalani, director of information technology at the Canadian Public Accountability Board (CPAB). With 53 employees and consultants, and three locations across Canada, he needed a way to get a handle on his infrastructure.

Mr. Lalani chose a Dell KACE appliance because, he says, "ease of use and cost of ownership were the main reasons. It was a perfect fit for our size of organization. In addition it has a help-desk ticketing application, which we plan on activating in the near future. This will really help organize our support calls and reduces wait time for support."

KACE, a small Mountain View, Calif., company founded in 2003, was acquired by Dell two years ago. Former president (and now general manager) Rob Meinhardt says that from the start KACE targeted small- and medium-sized businesses that were long on management needs, but short on IT staff.

The company produces two complementary products:

  • The K1000 performs most of the day-to-day management donkey work such as searching the network for computers (discovery) and inventorying their components, asset management, software distribution, remote control, power management, security and patching, configuration management, and helpdesk ticketing.
  • The K2000 is primarily about deployment. It performs tasks such as centrally controlled installation of an operating system (OS) over a network and OS imaging (a process that copies a predefined operating system configuration, with additional software, on a disc, ensuring a consistent, manageable computing environment; it can also capture an approved image from a computer for use elsewhere).

Because the company is owned by Dell, the appliances can directly link to Dell's support organization, allowing customers to check warranty status, hardware specs and required patches for their Dell hardware.

Mr. Lalani uses virtually all functions of his K1000: patching of Microsoft and third-party products, asset management of computers and other devices such as wireless mobile sticks and smartphones, and tracking his Dell hardware specs.

"The ability to manage all of these tasks from one screen within three to four mouse clicks has definitely saved time for our department," he says.

"The reporting engine is excellent," he adds. "We now have our appliance set to run custom reports biweekly and deliver them to our inbox automatically."

These days, almost everything has a social component, and Dell KACE is no different. Its community site,, is a platform-agnostic home for help and best practices for software deployment, configuration settings and system management. With more than 450,000 monthly visitors, the community is a networking hub as well as a source of information. Access to it is available directly from the KACE appliance console.

The appliance suits Mr. Lalani's needs well, on the whole. His only complaint is the licensing model. "I would have really liked to see a tiered approach," he says. "Currently the appliance starts at a minimum of 100 nodes. A small business would benefit from a licensing model that starts at 20 nodes with smaller increments."

When evaluating any management solution, he recommends that potential customers try the product in their own environments. Most vendors, including Dell KACE, offer free trials.

Of course, nothing is perfect. The downside of appliances is that, like toasters, they do what they do. You can't add functions or substitute components. But if an appliance does what you need it to, it can be a great choice for a business that's short on IT resources.