Appliance-based remote support as good as software

Bomgar is a winner, says James E Gaskin

The old reach out and touch someone slogan from the phone company means, in the technical support business, to reach out and touch someone's computer. Doing so in person takes expertise and patience. Doing so remotely takes expertise, patience and special tools.

Those special tools have always been software, whether run from your own computer or servers, or provided by a hosted service provider. The Bomgar Box family (appliance-based remote desktop access) uses a hardware appliance rather than software.

Joel Bomgar, Founder and CEO of Bomgar started the company because he couldn't find a software tool he liked when he went out looking for an answer.

"I was a senior system engineer at a support company for engineering," Bomgar says. "We looked at the major software players and didn't find anything we liked [that would let us] reach out over the web for instant-on support and go through corporate firewalls without causing a problem. So we started a company around the technology we developed to do our job."

Ah, another instance of an employee coming up with a great idea on company time, then stealing the idea? Bomgar laughed at that. "Not only did the CEO at my old company take a minority interest in our company, we incubated our company in the old company."

Using hardware rather than software isn't the only difference between Bomgar and other remote support companies. Rather than charge for licences for each remote computer, Bomgar charges by the number of concurrent support sessions the appliance is supporting at any one time. The entry level unit, the B100, allows a single support session for US$1,995 (NZ$2,535). The B200 for small businesses allows up to 20 support connections (US$1,995 for the hardware with one licence, $1,995 for each additional concurrent user license up to 20). The B300 supports up to 50 concurrent support connections.

Basing the product on an appliance makes it possible for Bomgar to do some unusual things. For instance, it keeps session log files on the internal hard disk, out of the reach of the support techs. This makes auditors happy, and lately, happier auditors drive lots of business decisions.

Companies with a single location served by a single LAN have a fairly easy support job, and there are many tools (some of them free) available. Does Bomgar need a second appliance to help support users in a second location?

"We use a patent-pending technology we call a 'jump client' to support clients in other locations," says Bomgar. "The jump client machine has the remote client software installed. If another machine in that location needs the remote software, we use Microsoft's built in Windows tools to see other Windows machines, then use Microsoft push utilities to install the client on those other Windows machines."

Companies don't need to create a special VPN for Bomgar. Even better, Bomgar uses ports 80 and 443, the ports already open on every firewall for web browsing clients.

When a client machine without any Bomgar software needs help, the user surfs to the company's Bomgar appliance, sometimes linked through their internal website. The appliance sends the client software to the remote machine with a single click, and then the technician can control the remote workstation. When finished, you can delete the remote software to erase all trace, or leave it on for next time. Like many remote support products, unattended clients can be controlled if they have the software installed, so leaving it on may be a good idea.

Bomgar supports a wide range of remote clients, include Windows PCs (from Windows 95 to Vista), Windows Mobile devices, Macintosh and Linux (Ubuntu, Red Hat, Fedora and Suse). Few competitors cover this many options, and none cover more that I know of. Once connected to a remote computer, the support tech can initiate telnet or command line sessions to connect with any other devices on the remote network, such as routers.

If you only need to support a handful of Windows-only systems, you have plenty of remote control options. But if you have, say, 50 computers of various kinds spread across four locations, the costs of licences from software vendors may outweigh the cost of the entry level B100 Bomgar pretty quickly.

Other companies in this market get big dreams and branch out into non-support product areas. Bomgar says that's not the company's goal. "Our exclusive focus is on support. We took venture capital so we could grow because the market opportunity is so huge, and we've grown about 150% the last two or three years."

It looks like a box can deliver support as well as software, maybe even better.

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