DASHing solution proposed for remote PC diagnosis

DMTF standards group introduces specifications to lower the total cost of ownership for desktop and notebook PCs

A new low-level PC management standard is brewing, one that may eventually enable IT managers to remotely diagnose and fix malfunctioning machines -- even those that are turned off or unable to boot.

The Distributed Management Task Force (DMTF) last week announced its Desktop and mobile Architecture for System Hardware (DASH) initiative.

A forthcoming set of specifications that the DMTF hopes to persuade component and hardware vendors as well as management software vendors to follow, DASH would be able to lower the total cost of ownership (TCO) for desktop and notebook computers, said Winston Bumpus, president of the U.S.-based standards group.

DASH will use another better-known DMTF specification, Web Services for Management (WS-Management), to enable management software to pull status information from PC hardware components and peripherals stored in flash memory, Bumpus said.

That would allow machines that are "out-of-band," or not running normally, to be diagnosed and even fixed remotely.

Most existing management software and monitoring technology rely on software agents running on the machines to send back status information, said Lars Ewe, a division marketing manager at AMD, which is a supporter of DASH.

But software agents don't work if the machine's operating system can't boot because the latter is hung, corrupted by a virus, or not yet deployed.

"If you have a savvy administrator, DASH will let him diagnose whether an operating system is fried and let him remote boot it with a gold standard image of the OS," Ewe said. Or "if the hard drive is dead, you can see that. Or you can wake up a PC and read the POST BIOS test data, as long as the power isn't totally switched off."

That would allow IT administrators, if they can't fix the PC remotely, to know what gear to bring on a physical visit the first time and avoid multiple trips, Ewe said. The DASH specification is similar to the DMTF's existing SMASH specification that enables similar features in server hardware, said Bumpus.

The DMTF plans to demonstrate DASH at next week's Microsoft Management Summit in San Diego, U.S. It has also just released a white paper describing the spec in detail.

Besides AMD, other companies pledging their support for DASH include big names such as Dell, IBM, HP, Microsoft, and others.

Bumpus predicted that PCs with DASH capabilities will start shipping within the next six to 12 months. He declined to predict how long it would take for DASH to become mainstream, but noted that DASH's predecessor, Alert Standard Format (ASF), was introduced in mid-2003 and is now used in "tens of millions" of PCs, mostly within businesses.

Neither WS-Management nor DASH is being proposed as an International Organization for Standardization (ISO) standard today, though Bumpus said that might happen in the future.

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