PCs

Smart Displays allow admins to roam with their desktop tools

Troubleshooting and maintenance activities often require admins to travel around a building or campus area, which makes it tough to maintain access to diagnostic and admin tools. A Smart Display can provide a nimble solution to this problem.

An administrator is sitting at her desk checking out the latest security logs when she sees something that looks a little odd. At that moment, she gets a call from an NOC engineer down in the server room who tells her he's afraid that a hacker may have planted a Trojan on their network. She heads down to the server room, and the two of them begin investigating the matter.

She sits down at a workstation in the server room but finds that it does not have one of the scanning tools she needs. So she decides to go back to her desk and run the scan from there and then come back. However, when she gets back to her desk, she is immediately interrupted and told that there is a network problem down on the second floor.

She goes down there, discovers the source of the problem, and fixes it. She starts to head back upstairs, but an employee mentions that one of the printers hasn't been working all week. (The employees have been printing to a different printer in a neighboring department.) The administrator wishes that she could access a vendor printing tool to troubleshoot the problem. She'll need to go back to her desk to use that utility and then return to the second floor to make sure the printer's network connection is working again.

This is the type of administrator who could benefit from a new technology called a Smart Display. A Smart Display is a special flat panel monitor, whose screen detaches from the base, allowing users to roam throughout the office and still connect to their desktop machine via a wireless connection from the monitor to the PC. The Smart Display screen makes use of pen computing to ease mobility. Let's take a closer look at how a Smart Display works and how it could come in handy for administrators.

How a Smart Display works
First, it's important to understand that Smart Displays have been developed by Microsoft (which refers to them as Windows Powered Smart Displays); therefore, they work only with Windows desktops. In fact, they don't work with every version of Windows—only with Windows XP Professional with Service Pack 1 (or higher) installed.

The Smart Display itself looks like a standard flat panel monitor (see Figure A), except that it has a more ample base with more port connectors. However, the Smart Display screen pops out of the base and functions as its own separate entity. The screen has built-in 802.11b wireless hardware and runs a custom version of Windows CE software. The device also functions as a touch-screen monitor that includes an onscreen keyboard and handwriting recognition software.

Figure A
This Philips DesXcape 150DM is one example of a Smart Display.


For the connection to the PC, Smart Displays use the 802.11b wireless connection in conjunction with the Remote Desktop software that is built into Windows XP. Essentially, this means that the desktop system does all of the processing and activities that it normally would, and the images of what is happening "onscreen" are sent over the wireless connection to the Smart Display. This works very well, and if you have a good wireless connection, there is virtually no lag time between the PC and the Smart Display.

The bottom line for an administrator
The Smart Display is more than just a slick gadget. Its capabilities allow admins to move about a building and/or campus area and still have access to the diagnostic and administrative tools running on their desktop machine. Currently, to achieve this kind of mobility, many administrators use PDAs or laptops.

The main drawback to PDAs is that you don't have the full power of a desktop client or the screen space to analyze many reports. The main drawback to laptops is that you have to maintain a completely different system from your desktop PC. This includes a separate license of Windows, separate hardware, and separate installations and licenses of your favorite tools. That can be expensive and tedious.

Smart Displays offer much of the mobility and convenience of the PDA and even more power than most laptops, since the processing is done by a desktop system. They run between $1,100 and $1,500, which is more than a PDA but less than a separate laptop, especially once you add in the cost of OS and software licenses. Here is a list of Smart Display vendors, along with information on the models they offer.

Although Microsoft and the Smart Display vendors are currently marketing this new technology primarily to home users and a few early adopter business users, I think they could be an excellent tool for administrators who need to nimbly move throughout an office—especially one that already has an 802.11b infrastructure in place—while still maintaining access to their most important fat-client and Web-based applications.

Coming up next
In my next article, I will review the Philips DesXcape 150DM Smart Display and show you how it performed in my tests of moving around while connecting to some popular admin tools back on the desktop.

 
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