Compaq's Brave New Network

You come into the office one fine morning, flip on your computer, and, after a few seconds, the baleful message appears on the screen: "No boot device available." Your hard disk is dead. You don't need to be a computer whiz to know at once that you face a difficult chore moving some data to safety and restoring or reconstructing the rest.

What if your computer, sensing that the drive was on the verge of failing, could warn you--and automatically copy the data into a network file server or onto tape? What if a rise in your PC's internal temperature could alert tech support that there was a blocked fan vent before the heat had a chance to damage your machine or your data?

ON THE BALL. Some new machines from Compaq Computer Corp. hold promise to perform such feats as part of their ability to diagnose how a network functions. The result will be a giant step toward safer and cheaper computing. Compaq's Deskpro models (800 888-5858) represent the company's effort to consider market data and consumer preferences in designing and pricing machines (BW--Mar. 20). In addition to providing disaster prevention, these office computers offer better tools for managing the hardware and software on networks. Simply letting system managers know what features and software are on a network's computers can save big bucks (BW--Mar. 6).

The Deskpros have been designed around the new reality that a corporate computer is a networked computer. Compaq estimates that 70% of business computers worldwide will be networked by next year. Deskpros come ready to plug into an Ethernet (or, optionally, an IBM Token Ring) network, with no interface cards to install or configure.

Once computers are on the network, it only makes sense to use the network to manage them better. Software companies such as Symantec, Cheyenne Software, and Frye Computer Systems have been offering network-management tools for some time, and Compaq has integrated these well-tested tools into the Deskpros. Among other things, these programs have the capability to maintain a database of machine serial numbers and configurations and can monitor the use of software. A number of hardware enhancements by Compaq make these tools work even better. Fault-reporting hard drives were developed in cooperation with three leading disk manufacturers: Conner Peripherals, Seagate Technology, and Quantum.

Although Deskpro's analytics are designed mainly to help administrators, they can benefit users in ways beyond anticipating hard-drive problems. For example, if a certain program isn't working right on your computer, a network administrator can find out, without a trek to your office, whether the problem is due to outdated system software--and can then update the software. The result: faster and less disruptive service.

The trick for Compaq will be persuading corporate purchasing departments to get a new perspective. The pricing should help. For example, a Deskpro 575 with a 75-megahertz Pentium processor will retail for about $2,150. A ProLinea 575, virtually identical except for the lack of a built-in network interface and management tools, sells for just $150 less.

Compaq is saying that spending a little more up front will mean big savings over the life of the machine. Gartner Group Inc., a consulting firm, estimates that service and support help push the cost of a networked PC to roughly $40,000 over five years. Compaq says that the new Deskpros will knock about $10,000 off the total lifetime cost.

If corporations accept that argument, they'll beat a path to Compaq's Houston headquarters. And competitors such as IBM and Hewlett-Packard Co. will move quickly to match the technology. That could mean that Compaq's corporate edge may be short-lived--but computer users can't lose.

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