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All Boxed Up

Simplicity, high performance, and low cost make network appliances increasingly popular.

When was the last time you consulted the owner’s manual for your refrigerator or toaster oven? Exactly. Kitchen appliances are both familiar and simple (well, usually). They do their jobs unobtrusively, and they require no tinkering. If only things were that simple in the IT world.

Increasingly, they are. The family of products known as network appliances, which first appeared several years ago, is now finding its way into companies of all sizes. The devices offer an all-in-one solution (hardware and preloaded software) that has been preconfigured to tackle a given function, such as E-mail, security, or data-crunching. For the most part, they will not even accept customization, which may frustrate some customers. Then again, no specially trained consultants are needed to get them to work, nor do you need a super-hip, nocturnal, pizza-munching network administrator to coax them to keep working and play nice with the other computers. In short, network appliances have been manufactured and tuned to accomplish one thing very well, at a relatively low cost and with minimal hand-holding and downtime. Their plug-and-play design allows companies to tap their capabilities almost as soon as the machines are unpacked.

If you need proof that these appliances are hot, consider the success of what may be the highest-profile player in the field: Google. It’s currently selling its Google Search Appliance about as fast as Starbucks sells grande frappuccinos. “There are more than 1,500 companies using our search appliances, and we are adding dozens of customers daily,” says Matt Glotzbach, product manager for Google Enterprise, in Mountain View, California. “These companies see the search appliance as a sophisticated solution in an easy-to-use form, and they can get it running in literally a couple of hours.”

Companies use Google’s appliance not to find information on the Web, but to track down data on their internal systems. And just as refrigerators come in a variety of sizes, so too does the Google appliance. The company offers a small model capable of searching through up to 1.5 million documents, an in-between model that can “crawl” (as they say in the search world) up to 5 million documents, and, at the high end, the GB-8008 Google Search Appliance, which can bore through 15 million pieces of information to find that memo or sales presentation that lies buried on the company’s network. As if those weren’t enough choices, earlier this year the company added the Google Mini, a search appliance tailored to small and midsize businesses. It costs less than $3,000 and can search up to 100,000 documents.

The economics of an appliance appealed to Chris Smith, lead Internet technologist at the Xerox Office Group headquarters, which has a staff of 800 in Wilsonville, Oregon. Sales staff were stymied when they wanted to look up such essentials as product information, rebates, current promotions, and customer notes. There were plenty of products that promised to bring order to bear, but, says Smith, “they were expensive, involved a great deal of IT configuration time and ongoing maintenance, and required us to find a server to host them on. We had a very small budget, and I needed to find an inexpensive solution that didn’t require a lot of effort.”

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