At a briefing this week, Intel demonstrated a technology that could save large companies millions of pounds. Intel’s Active Management Technology (AMT) was first previewed at September’s Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco, but this was the first time it had been demonstrated with working silicon. Howard Cooper, Technical Marketing Manager from Intel's Israel Design Centre, flew over especially to demonstrate the technology to an exclusive group of journalists.
In designing AMT, Intel says that it consulted the IT departments of a large number of major organisations and asked them what their needs were and what problems they faced. These companies included names such as Boeing, Coca Cola, Morgan Stanley, CSFB, Nike and even Intel itself.
AMT is designed to deal with the problem the IT departments of these companies face of how to effectively conduct asset management – that is having a complete and accurate list of all the PCs in the company and what software they are running. Asset management is important as companies could be leaking money by over playing for software licences or through runing outdated PCs. The relevant buzz phrase here is reducing Total Cost of Ownership (TCO). Equally, they could be underpaying for software licences, which could land them in legal trouble and lead to heavy fines. However, to conduct asset management properly it has to be done manually, which is both expensive and time consuming. While limited remote management is possible it can only be done when the PC is on. It also relies on software agents that many users remove, as they view them only as hindering the performance of their machines.
What AMT does is to discover all the PC on the networks and all of the software the PCs are running at any time, and regardless of their state. The PCs don’t even have to be turned on to obtain this information.
AMT works by taking all the hardware data from the BIOS and all the software information from the operating system and storing it on non-volatile flash memory. In the demo this was located on a modified Intel Tekoa Gigabit Ethernet NIC, but the plan is to place this down on next generation motherboards. This information can them be accessed by a central management console over the network, even if the PC is off.
The AMT chip contains an integrated web server, and parses the data using standard XML so can be displayed in any browser. All that is required is some trickle charge power from the mains lead and an Ethernet connection.
Security is obviously an issue and Intel claims that all information is transferred using standard encryption and authentication protocols to ensure that only the real Management Console can access the data.
In addition to Asset Management, AMT also enables PCs to be diagnosed and even repaired remotely even if the system is shut down, or the OS has hung. This is known as Out-of-band Management (OOB). This is another area of huge savings for companies. Figures show that five per cent of calls that require desktop call-outs, make up 52 per cent of IT costs.
However, with AMT, companies can remotely load new files onto a PC. For example, in the event of a hard disk failure it can act as a virtual floppy, so the Management Console operator can choose from a list of boot discs on screen, and select how they want to set-up the PC. This could be used to completely re-image the machine, without anyone having to go anywhere near it.
Another scenario could be for virus protection. If a virus or worm is know to attach a particular file or DLL, this could be remotely uploaded to every PC on the network, protecting users without them having to do anything or even know anything about it. The system works as everything is handled by the hardware without any software having to be involved on the client side.
By moving into asset management and remote networking Intel could be seen as stepping on the toes of companies who operate in this area such as Computer Associates, Symantec and CheckPoint. However Intel spokeman Mark Godding was quick to state that it was working with these companies to integrate the functionality of AMT into their products.
While this technology has been available to servers before, these were by expensive customised solutions. By making the technology standard on the Intel platform, Intel can ensure that companies can easily get the benefits of the potential cost savings. By default AMT will be turned off, so companies only have to use it once they feel comfortable with it.
Though the technology is aimed firmly at the enterprise, by making it standard on all Intel platforms it would also be available to OEMs who sell home PCs. While the usage model will inevitably have to be quite different, it does raise the possibility of much more effective home user support in the future. Intel spokesman Nick Knupffer confirmed that Intel was discussing the technology with major OEMs but would not disclose anything further.
To evaluate the technology, Intel did what Microsoft would refer to as ‘eat-its-own dog food'. By employing AMT, Intel claims that it will save at least $16 million annually on asset management and client computer support.
This is certainly good news for corporate companies, but it’s the possibilities for souped-up home support that may make AMT an important technology for anyone that buys an Intel PC and we look forward to developments in that area.