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Intel Debuts 'IT On A Chip' For SMBs

Small Business Advantage, baked into Intel's PC chipsets, performs many traditional help-desk chores. But don't expect it to fix the problems it finds.

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Small businesses have a new, tiny IT department at their disposal: the PC processor.

Okay, that's a bit of a stretch. But Intel's new Small Business Advantage is indeed designed to automate and perform a number of traditional help-desk tasks, from software updates to security to backup. It will be baked into the i3/i5/i7 chipset and requires almost no user action or technical skill. Intel said the platform is intended for "unmanaged" offices--those companies that operate with little or no formal IT support--with up to 100 employees.

Dennis Doherty, software PME in Intel's business client platform marketing group, said that Small Business Advantage is something of a departure for Intel: It talked to actual small businesses before engineering it.

"It's not your typical Intel solution," Doherty said in an interview. "We listened. We went in there, we had some humble pie. We interviewed small businesses, [their] employees, [and] IT professionals who do this for a living to find out what their thoughts were."

[ Read Should Small Businesses Centrally Manage iOS Devices? ]

The chipmaker is touting Small Business Advantage as a combination of hardware, software, and firmware that leverages and automates existing tools, such as the ones Microsoft includes in Windows or backup services such as Carbonite. The firmware is the operative piece: It acts something like an automated help-desk technician, monitoring critical software and checking for updates, backing up data, running a disk defragmentation, deleting temporary files, and so forth. Tasks can be scheduled for any time of day so as to not disrupt productivity. In fact, Small Business Advantage can turn a PC on or off based on its configuration. The PC doesn't need to be left running overnight for tasks to be completed. Likewise, PCs can be set to shut down at a certain time of night to cut down on energy consumption.

Small Business Advantage also can play the role of policy cop. The USB Blocker feature, for example, can prevent selected types of devices from connecting to the PC and limit what is added to or removed from the machine. Settings for this and other features--software updates, maintenance tasks, and backup--can be password-protected so that end users can't change them or turn them off. There is no subscription cost--Small Business Advantage will be included as a free service on certain business PC models purchased via a reseller or directly from companies such as Lenovo and Dell.

If much of this sounds similar to Intel's vPro support technology, it should. Small Business Advantage essentially is a scaled-down version of vPro, one that doesn't require a systems administrator or consultant to implement and manage.

"We wanted to see which [vPro] features would apply to a small business," Doherty said. The overarching goal: Eliminate the need for an IT pro, managed-service provider (MSP), or consultant to deploy and manage those features. "We took those features and modified them so that it could be at the individual PC level." Yet Intel isn't suddenly getting into the PC support game. You won't see a fleet of branded vehicles a la Geek Squad cruising the roads. In fact, Doherty said it's not even intended to compete with existing remote support platforms, and especially not with MSPs or other third-party IT shops. MSPs and other resellers, such as OEMs, are part of Intel's bread and butter, so it wouldn't behoove Intel to start nipping at their business. Resellers, in particular, will have the opportunity to customize deployments of Small Business Advantage, tailoring the applications, up-sell messages, and the UI to specific customers.

"It is not meant to compete with vPro, and it is not meant to compete with the MSP," Doherty said. "The functionality is limited but extendable."

By extendable, Doherty means Small Business Advantage isn't a locked-down platform--if a small company grows to the point that it needs "real" IT, Intel turns the proverbial keys over. By limited, Doherty means just that: Although Small Business Advantage might help offload routine tasks and check for issues behind the scenes, it won't necessarily fix the problems that do occur--you'll still need a real-life support pro. A "Fix It" feature is in the works for a future release of Small Business Advantage.

"Right now, we're doing a great job of telling you there's a problem," Doherty said. "In the next step, we want help you fix it through one click."

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