Networks

INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY GUIDE

New client-server tools help agencies migrate to enterprise computing.

Nothing has contributed more to the popularity of federal client-server networks than government downsizing. Agencies faced with smaller budgets and technical staffs are shifting computer applications from huge data centers filled with expensive mainframes to distributed computing environments that incorporate PCs. Inexpensive desktop machines, known as clients, can use file servers to tap more powerful computers for data and software applications to be used locally.

Client-server networks empower lower-level workers by giving them immediate access to many types of data from multiple operating systems and hardware platforms. The Social Security Administration, for instance, is linking 60,000 workstations to the agency's mainframe center in Baltimore. Distributed computing also helps workers share common resources such as printers, modems and mass-storage devices.

Although client-server networks are not appropriate for all computer applications, the technology is helping the federal government reduce many of its data centers. The Defense Department, for example, is consolidating 194 military data centers into 16 megacenters-all with the help of distributed computing.

The goal of many agencies is to connect their dozens of local-area networks(LANs), which link individual PCs and workstations. Such inter-networking helps organizations tie together disparate databases and reengineer their information systems.

This year, agencies will be relying on high-performance servers from manufacturers such as AST Research, Compaq, Dell, Hewlett-Packard and IBM to connect networks of desktop machines. Future hardware innovations are expected to improve network speeds. Compaq and Texas Instruments, for instance, are involved in a joint venture to design fast networking chips.

Prices will continue to drop this year for critical network components such as hubs, bridges, routers, gateways and repeaters. These devices from companies such as Bay Networks, Cabletron, Cisco Systems and 3ComCorp. ensure that data travels along the most efficient paths within networks. Hubs are particularly important in large networks that carry communications from multiple network protocols.

Operating Systems. Competition will continue to be fierce in 1996 for makers of network operating systems. Novell's NetWare 4.1 has had tremendous success since its introduction a year ago. The operating system, which enables client-server users to manage data through one global directory supporting the entire enterprise, has been bundled onto several server models.

Many firms, spurred by the adoption of new technology standards, have introduced programs that increase the interoperability of their operating systems. Novell's NetWare Client for Windows NT, for example, gives NT users access to NetWare. Santa Cruz Operation's Unix-based Open Server Release 5 is an open system that enables users to run applications designed for different platforms.

Network Management. One of the hottest segments of network management is directory services, which help guide network administrators through enterprises. Directories are repositories of information such as access rights and log-in names pertaining to specific applications. Directory services enable different directories to work together so data can be shared throughout a network. This eliminates the need for network managers to manually replicate data.

Directory services used to be bundled with network operating systems, but as networks became larger and more sophisticated, companies such as Banyan Systems and Novell started selling them separately. The services play a major role in helping network managers track information.

New network-management programs from makers such as Computer Associates, Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems provide 24-hour-a-day status reports on network components. These help network administrators quickly detect traffic congestion, component failures and cable faults so networks can be reconfigured before data is lost.

Companies such as Cabletron have even started incorporating artificial-intelligence tools into their network-management software. These programs can automatically reroute data or isolate faulty devices to ensure that networks keep running efficiently.

RAD Tools. Also helping in the movement to distributed-processing environments have been rapid application development (RAD) tools, which help users write software applications for client-server networks. These tools from companies such as IBM, Powersoft, Sterling Software and Texas Instruments employ graphical-user interfaces that make customized applications relatively easy to create since users don't have to write every line of code.

Such model-based development saves agencies money and significantly reduces the time needed to deploy client-server applications. In addition, RAD tools can be reused in future applications.

And for applications developers interested in connecting copiers or other types of office equipment to networks, Novell has introduced an Embedded Systems Technology kit that enables users to integrate programming interfaces for virtually any type of electronic device.

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