XcelleNet's Afaria 5.0

Afaria is an easy-to-use mobile device management platform for Win32-, Pocket PC-, RIM Blackberry-, Palm OS-, Symbian OS- and Java-based devices.

July 7, 2003

5 Min Read
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Before I installed Afaria and Microsoft SQL 2000 on a dual Pentium 600-MHz, 512-MB Ram system at Network Computing's Real-World Labs at Syracuse University, I had to install a SQL database (such as Oracle 8i/9i or Microsoft SQL 7.0) to allow Afaria to store system information. Afaria comes with MSDE (Microsoft Data Engine), but because of its limited performance, I recommend using a database with more functionality such as SQL Server 2000 or Oracle 8i/9i. The .NET Framework, IIS 5.0 and Crystal Reports 7.0 (for viewing reports only) also are required for Afaria use.

Deployment and Administration

Afaria Interfaceclick to enlarge

The Afaria client is created via an easy-to-use wizard application. Installation executables are preconfigured for the Afaria system, so network connectivity to the Afaria server is already configured. Typically, companies using Afaria include the client as part of their standard image for Win32 devices; Palm devices have Afaria as part of the stock ROM image; and Windows CE devices deploy Afaria through an SD (San Disk) or CF (Compact Flash) card. The client also can be deployed via e-mail or offered as a download from corporate intranets.

Channels are set up with a straightforward wizard interface inside of the Web console. To deploy a software package, you simply select the platform that you want to target (e.g., all Windows clients), select the setup file or files, and deploy. Afaria also includes many advanced features for deploying channels, such as delivering content only on a certain date for a certain time period, checking client user system hardware specifications (e.g., deliver if client system has >128 MB RAM) or providing any additional command-line parameters.

I ran into a bug when deploying software to Windows clients. Inside the software channel, there is an option to automatically begin installation on the client after the software is received. Unfortunately, the end client will go through the install process every time the client connects to the server. To avoid this problem, the administrator must disable this option and make end users responsible for installing the software on their own systems. Afaria is working on a patch to address this issue.

Using a Palm m515, Compaq IPaq and Handspring Visor, I tested the features available to handheld devices and was not disappointed with the results. I remotely configured these mobile devices via the Configuration channel. Common configured settings include assigning push buttons to specific applications, setting owner information, network settings and hot sync options. Employees don't have to worry about configuring their devices, any lost or changed settings will be reset automatically by Afaria on the next connect.

Administrators can publish documents to clients via the document channel. The backup channel is often coupled with the document channel to efficiently back up and restore documents to the Afaria server. The backup channel saves time by utilizing byte-level differencing, only transmitting changes between the files. This was certainly apparent when I used the backup channel to monitor a 10-MB document. I made a few textual changes and watched as the re-transmission took only a few seconds. This is a great way to conserve bandwidth for your enterprise road warriors.

Afaria has a host of options that allow administrators to push content to clients over any network connection, thereby optimizing connectivity. In addition to byte-level differencing, Afaria compresses data on the fly, performs bandwidth throttling, segments delivery and issues checkpoint restart of failed downloads. I tested all these features with ease. Afaria's easy-to-use Web-based interface is excellent for getting up and running in little time.

But Is It Safe?

Afaria goes through many steps to make sure that communication between clients and servers is secure. I found it easy to set up Afaria to use SSL for encrypting information passing from the server to the clients. Unfortunately, Afaria only supports SSL on Win32 and Windows CE devices. Afaria users also can utilize 128-bit Microsoft CryptoAPI, elliptical curve crypto, HTTP encapsulation and X.509 digital certificates for security.

Several categories of reports are included with Afaria: inventory of hardware from all clients and software from Win32 clients, server logs and status reports. When viewing reports, you can either view all clients that have connected or drill into a single client by manually typing in that client. It would be difficult to investigate an individual client if you have more than a handful of machines using the Afaria system because you have to manually type in the end client's machine name. Custom reports generated in Crystal Reports can be imported for use in Afaria as well.

XcelleNet's Afaria 5.0 is designed to manage your mobile workforce and is best suited for organizations that have encountered trouble supporting the ever-increasing number of mobile devices. The new Web-based interface is easy to use and makes administration a snap. Once XcelleNet offers a patch for the Win32 problem, Afaria is a must-buy for any enterprise.

Andy Woods is a computer scientist for a federal law enforcement agency. You can reach him by e-mail at [email protected].

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