2006 Products Of The Year

You know the drill: The product you choose for a particular task or solution set can make or break your company's business from a technical—and business—standpoint. And the volume of new products offered up for your consideration and evaluation continues to increase exponentially.

So how do you unlock new profit potential? The 2006 Product of the Year special report seeks to cut through the noise, pointing to software and hardware that breaks past conventions and raises the bar in term of technical excellence.

To determine our list, the CRN Test Center retested both previously recommended and newly updated or introduced products in 10 different segments. From XML Web development to build-you-own NAS to mobile computing to virtual security software. From dimunitive servers to the latest in application development and testing. The one thing all these products have in common is their uncommon flexibility, unshackling the imagination of solution providers and enabling them to write their own rules with respect to configuration and customization options. And, of course, the companies behind these products share a true dedication to reaching customers with the channel, as is demonstrated by the margin potential, technical support and business development details within their programs.

Are you ready to take off the cuffs?

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DataDirect Technologies Stylus Studio 2007

Few technologies have experienced the growth XML has enjoyed, a fact that is especially significant when one considers the complexity behind it.

Simply put, XML has become one of the most important technologies in use today for sharing data across disparate systems. Considering the importance of XML and its underlying complexity, any product that makes it easier to deploy is certainly worth noting. Case in point: DataDirect Technologies' Stylus Studio 2007 XML Enterprise Suite offers tools that make XML easy to deploy, without any coding. This achievement earns it a Product of the Year nod for Web development.

Stylus Studio 2007 XML Enterprise Suite comes with two powerful tools, XML Pipeline and XML Publisher. XML Pipeline is essentially a chain of XML operations that control data transformations of XML and non-XML data. XML Publisher helps developers create XML solutions without coding.

The product's graphical map diagrams prove an easy way to control many data sources, a step up from the competition. Validations and conditions based on XML schemas, XSLT and XQuery are used to generate the map. The product's six graphical icons describe XML piping between nodes and ports. Like process flows, pipeline outputs can be diverted to multiple sources and can be stopped if necessary. Stylus Studio provides an additional pipeline step called XSL-FO using XQuery that can transform XML documents into a PDF output.

FLOWR operations are the most powerful and direct procedures for building new structures from source documents. Like SQL Select statements, FLOWR expressions can massage multiple XML nodes into uniformed output structures. Developers also can enforce data types in FLOWR outputs to detect errors when linking nodes.

Stylus Studio 2007 XML Enterprise Suite is priced at $795. Oak Park, Calif.-based DataDirect offers average margins between 10 percent and 35 percent. Seasonal spifs also are offered.

Free technical support is available to VARs, and all calls are answered within 24 hours. DataDirect provides live Web-based training, in addition to its ongoing commitment to its online training library. Many of the new videos are accessible directly from Stylus Studio's help menus.

-- Mario Morejon

Astaro Security Gateway

Security appliances have almost become a dime a dozen. Yet, among the array of contenders on the market, one product managed to stand out in 2006, the Security Gateway series from Astaro.

What separates Astaro from the pack is that the appliance isn't really an appliance, it's a virtual appliance. By going the virtual route, Astaro allows partners to offer all of the benefits of an integrated appliance yet eliminate the need for proprietary hardware. How does the Burlington, Mass., company accomplish this lofty goal? By using virtual machine technology from VMware, which makes the full name of the product Astaro Security Gateway for VMware.

The security software is optimized to run a VMware virtual machine, and the company has migrated its appliance-specific operating system (a security-hardened version of Linux) and software over to a virtual hard drive (VHD).

The benefits of virtualization are many. Administrators can make the appliance portable because the VHD can be copied to another system. That lends itself to handling backup and disaster-recovery chores; administrators can keep copies of the virtual appliance off-site. Better yet, both chores can be converted into services VARs can offer, providing the opportunity for an additional revenue stream.

Other benefits include offering the VAR better control over upgrades. For example, an increase in hard-drive capacity entails little more than expanding the VHD, while performance can be increased by simply moving the VHD to a faster machine. Smaller sites can use the product on an existing server by creating a virtual machine on that server and installing Astaro's gateway.

Solution providers will find a stateful packet inspection firewall, proxy server, VPN and intrusion-protection features. Antispyware, content filtering, antivirus and antispam options are also available for the product, allowing solution providers to craft customized security solutions according to their clients' needs.

Pricing is based on active users and concurrent connections. Configurations for as few as 10 users to unlimited users and connections are available. Suggested pricing for a sample configuration allowing 250 active users and 512,000 connections, including subscriptions and one year of maintenance, is $11,885.

Astaro sells more than 90 percent of its products through its base of about 300 solution providers. Certified partners have access to a dedicated Web portal, beta-testing programs, MDFs and more; Authorized partners have an annual minimum sales requirement of $2,500; Preferred partners have a sales commitment of $50,000; and Premier partners focus on enterprise accounts and have a yearly sales goal of $200,000. Astaro also offers free training and certification, promotional spifs, lead generation and free demo units.

-- Frank J. Ohlhorst

Server Partners File Engine

Some integrators may be unsure how to balance their existing revenue stream from network hardware with their need to extend their managed services capabilities. With its FileEngine product, Server Partners offers solution providers the ability to straddle the two worlds.

FileEngine, an on-site server appliance, is managed remotely as an SMB service. This unique approach, combined with the product's potential for up-front profitability, earns FileEngine the Product of the Year nod for networking hardware.

Server Partners' FileEngine combines Linux, open-source software and the Pentium 4 platform in a system that is leased for a flat monthly fee for a three-year term. There are no hidden costs, and the appliance is simply replaced every three years along with a new lease agreement.

FileEngine is ideal for VARs selling to companies that need flexible networking capabilities but don't want to deal with licensing and maintenance costs. The appliance comes with redundant hard drives, integrated DVD-R backup, a free American Power Conversion SmartUPS 620 UPS, remote administration and monitoring—and it works with all versions of Windows and Mac OS X.

The platform supports an unlimited number of users with no license costs or repair bills. What's more, customers are guaranteed that their data is safe, and solution providers are guaranteed to make money because the appliance is leased and maintained remotely.

Prices start at $235 per month for a unit containing two mirrored 120-Gbyte hard drives. The monthly fee covers installation, integration, monitoring and maintenance. Updates are performed automatically as needed. Configurations with larger capacities are available at a higher price. A built-in double-layer DVD burner lets users put up to 18 Gbytes of backup files on removable media from an easy-to-use push-button interface. To prevent user tampering, no mouse, keyboard or monitor come with the appliance.

In addition to earning revenue from handling installations, partners can generate recurring revenue by selling an off-site remote backup option tied to FileEngine. The service is sold to partners for $3 per Gbyte per month, but the partner can typically charge customers $6 to $10 per Gbyte per month. The partner then receives a check each month from Server Partners. If there is ever a problem with the appliance, the partner is paid to fix it. (Customers never have to pay more than their agreed-upon monthly lease price.)

Server Partners has successfully created a product that is the sound foundation for a real solution, keeping VARs involved and guaranteeing customer satisfaction. A rare combination indeed.

-- Frank J. Ohlhorst

Intel SS4000-E

With storage on the verge of becoming a commodity, it is harder and harder for VARs to earn a reasonable profit from storage-related devices. That has become especially true in the NAS market, where everyone and their brother offers products both via retail and value-added channels.

Now, in the NAS arena, the only way to stand out is to do something different. And that's where Santa Clara, Calif.-based Intel comes in with the Intel Storage System SS4000-E.

The SS4000-E is targeted at solution providers that want to build their own custom NAS units or, better yet, a white-box NAS solution. An ideal option for small businesses, the SS4000-E is both easy to use and affordable and can safely store up to 2 Tbytes of data. Multiple users can access the unit simultaneously, files can be shared among Windows, Linux and Macintosh users, and they can be managed by user names or groups. Small in size, the SS4000-E also is suitable for consumer use. Solution providers looking to expand into home integration should consider the SS4000-E as a central storage unit.

One thing solution providers will like about the SS4000-E is that it can be configured with different capacities depending on the application and eventually can be upgraded to its maximum capacity of 2 Tbytes down the road. The unit supports up to four 3.5 Serial ATA-I hard disks, ranging from 80 Gbytes to 500 Gbytes. The RAID-configurable drives are hot-swappable to avoid interruption of service when faulty disks must be replaced.

The SS4000-E is available as a barebones unit with no hard drives for $550. That's a beautiful thing for system builders that want to configure it themselves. It's also available preconfigured with four 500-Gbyte hard drives for $2,000.

The SS4000-E has a 2-Tbyte limit as to the size of the storage volume that can be created. It will support 750-Gbyte drives as long as the storage volume being created does not exceed the 2-Tbyte limit. Note that the 2-Tbyte capacity is met only by configuring the unit without RAID.

The SS4000-E is based on the Intel XScale 80219 processor and runs an embedded operating system based on the Linux 2.6 kernel. The four-bay unit is small enough to fit on a bookshelf. It features two Gigabit Ethernet ports for network connectivity; two USB ports allow the connection of external hard disks, flash disks and so forth. A client backup and recovery application included with the unit provides system backup, remote boot and recovery for clients running Windows 2000, Windows XP and Windows 2003.

Low cost, customizability and Intel's friendly channel program earned the SS4400-E the Product of the Year recognition for storage.

-- Marc Spiwak

Compuware DevPartner 8.0

For VARs, an application development job can prove either a cash cow or a lost cause. The magic needed to profit from those chores comes from a combination of talent and tools. While talent may be hard to come by, tools aren't. The trick is to use a tool that speeds development and offers robust features.

For those developers working with .Net, few tools can compare with Compuware DevPartner 8.0, which reduces the complexity of .Net development without eliminating any features. This garners DevPartner 8.0 the Product of the Year nod for application development tools.

When it comes to debugging .Net enterprise code, DevPartner 8.0 easily surpasses the tools in Microsoft Visual Studio. The product excels when it comes to simple runtime debugging, where it has the ability to trace .Net's memory, making it an ideal tool for testing .Net applications.

DevPartner fully integrates with Visual Studio 2005. To review code, it uses a database of more than 600 rules of industry best practices Compuware has accumulated for .Net applications. The static code analysis is extremely simple. After parsing .Net code, DevPartner compares it with all known problems in its database and returns a list of rules that were broken in the code.

Each rule provides an explanation section, a source line, information about what triggered the error, a repair section and a notes section. The repair section shows that sample code can be written in C#, Visual Basic.Net or C++.

In addition to scanning code, developers can automatically analyze object and variable declarations to make sure code follows company-accepted naming conventions.

DevPartner arrives with two tools, Performance Analysis and Performance Expert, both of which help developers optimize code.

Compuware provides partners with channel-neutral sales teams to help them through a sales cycle. Via a dedicated and secured portal, partners can receive product demos, proofs-of concept and evaluation software, including seminars and Webcasts.

It also offers a reseller revenue-sharing program for those partners not able to provide a complete solution. Because DevPartner is a complex product, partners that purchased priority-one technical support receive immediate help. Compuware declined to disclose margin information.

-- Mario Morejon

Minolta Magicolor 7450

Color printing has become a standby for today's businesses—after all, a splash of color can add a splash of professionalism in today's competitive environment.

Konica Minolta's latest best-in-class color laser printer offers a terrific combination of performance, image quality and paper handling at an estimated street price of $2,999, earning it the nod as Product of the Year for imaging.

The magicolor 7450 is a large-format color laser printer that's ideal for high-volume use with its 120,000-page-per-month duty cycle. It's also the perfect tool for producing in-house brochures and promotional pieces. The printer uses single-pass technology and offers 9,600 x 600 dpi-class resolution, all powered by a 733MHz G4 processor. The standard memory footprint is 256 Mbytes, upgradable to 1 Gbyte.

The printer outputs up to 24.5 ppm in monochrome or color and has standard Gigabit Ethernet, USB 2.0 and parallel interfaces. It supports direct photo printing from PictBridge-compatible cameras. Supported software includes PostScript 3 and PCL 6 printing languages as well as the Windows, Macintosh and Linux operating systems.

A price point affordable for most businesses and the ability to print on different sizes of paper stock make the unit a great option for many customer prospects, especially those seeking to eliminate expensive trips to the custom print shop.

The magicolor 7450 is easy for solution providers to set up, as it's small and doesn't weigh as much as many other large-format printers. The printer measures 25.5 x 23.6 x 18.7 inches and weighs about 133 pounds, with the consumables installed.

Monitoring and maintenance also are easy. VARs can use a Web-based management utility to display realtime supply status and troubleshoot the printer from any location. That translates into service revenue and also allows VARs to monitor supply inventories and offer supplies as needed, converting what would once be a catalog or retail sale into an ongoing revenue stream.

Konica Minolta's single-tier partner program is an exercise in simplicity. All partners receive marketing, pre-sales, post-sales and technical support. Complete product training is available online or in person. Partners are supported by dedicated account executives as well as systems field engineers and a dedicated inside sales representative at corporate headquarters in Ramsey, N.J. In addition, all have access to a password-protected Web site where they can learn about new offers, claim incentives and download support materials.

-- Marc Spiwak

Hewlett-Packard Compaq NC6400

VARs representing the notebook market often find themselves in the middle of a balancing act between form factor, price and performance. Whether a particular notebook is classified as a desktop replacement, ultraportable, tablet, ultrawide or so on, it must achieve the same goal, providing unparalleled end-user productivity. What's more, the playing field is filled with many excellent products from the likes of Lenovo, Toshiba, Panasonic and Fujitsu.

The Test Center faced the same dilemma when picking a product for the Product of the Year's notebook category. But after evaluating all of the units covered in 2006, it came to the conclusion that the Hewlett-Packard Compaq nc6400 deserves the honor. The nc6400 has a lot going for it, ranging from a multitude of configuration options to a variety of price points. That combination, backed up by a sound channel program, creates a product most any VAR can sell and earn from.

For business travelers, it is hard to beat the HP Compaq nc6400, a notebook that pulls together the best components to offer reliability and flexibility without sacrificing economy. VARs can order the nc6400 in a variety of configurations, ranging from units based upon high-performance processors, such as Intel's new Core 2 T7600, to economical performers, such as the Intel Core Duo T2300.

The notebook series can be equipped with 512 Mbytes, 1 Gbyte or 2 Gbytes of RAM, along with SATA drives ranging from 40 to 100 Gbytes. Several optical drives are on the menu, from basic DVD drives to DVD +/-RW drives. Other add-ons include multiple wireless options. Two different 14.1-inch wide screens round out the customization options.

Solution providers have a dizzying array of options for configuring a unique notebook for their customers. Specifically, the basic nc6400 (en362UT) starts at $1,199 and comes with an Intel T550 processor, 512 Mbytes of RAM and a 60-Gbyte hard disk. Meanwhile, the higher-end model nc6400 (RA264AT) retails for $1,549 and comes with an Intel T2400 processor, 1 Gbyte of RAM and a 60-Gbyte hard disk. All models feature a three-year warranty and weigh as little as 5 pounds.

HP's exceptional warranty on this line and dedicated support is a great addition to its channel program and helps ease possible customer concerns in the wake of recent battery recalls. HP, Palo Alto, Calif., was one of the few companies unaffected by the overheating issues associated with Sony-manufactured lithium ion cells.

-- Frank J. Ohlhorst

Microsoft Exchange 2007

The release of Exchange 2007 marks a new beginning in the messaging space, earning the software the Product of the Year nod for application software.

What used to be offered in a single Exchange 2003 product is now spread through a series of roles-based servers. The new modular architecture further reduces the load from client connections and allows for better scalability and failover reliability. The roles also simplify deployment and improve administration options for VARs.

Most server roles are optional, with the exception of Client Access, which operates as the middle tier for other server roles, especially for Exchange mailbox servers.

No doubt the big changes will introduce some complexity, so the Test Center recommends VARs attend as much training as Microsoft makes available. Because the new architecture is more expensive, it might increase overall management in the long term as administrators add more end-user functionality in a distributed environment. However, the improved traffic management might outweigh those considerations.

Exchange 2007's new Edge Transport server role, while optional, might prove crucial as a first line of defense against spammers. It is best deployed on a DMZ and can be made to filter out all incoming Internet messages. When combined with Microsoft Forefront Security, Edge Transport server provides antivirus protection. Forefront also provides content filtering to reduce spam. With Forefront installed, virus updates are automatic.

Partners also have the option of using the Exchange Hosted Filtering managed service. Microsoft has a number of data centers throughout the United States staffed with antispam technicians. Their role is to proactively identify spammers and quickly implement new antispam policies.

Out of the box, Exchange 2007 arrives with many new filtering features, far surpassing Exchange 2003 and major competitive messaging servers. Some key new filter features are open proxy validation, IP-based safe lists and admin quarantines.

Pricing for server licenses and standard Client Access Licenses is the same as Exchange 2003, but Exchange 2007 introduces the Enterprise Client Access License, which includes Software Assurance. The price for Exchange Enterprise is $3,999 and the Client Access License is $67, which includes calendaring, mobile device access and basic antispam.

-- Mario Morejon

Microsoft Vista Enterprise Edition

With Windows Vista, Microsoft has refreshed the user desktop experience. While debate rages over whether the five-year wait was worth it, the truth is Vista is pretty much the only game in town.

One may question whether Vista should be bestowed with Product of the Year recognition in the operating system category. But the product unquestionably brings new features and capabilities to solution providers that in turn promise new revenue generation dialogues with end users.

A number of new capabilities cemented Vista's place as our OS of choice on the desktop. First off, the Aero Glass interface offers a stunning look and is a lot more than just window dressing (pun intended). Aero offers an elegant user experience, transparent windows, purposeful animations and intuitiveness that will help to make the OS a hit with consumers and business users.

Related Review: 25 Shortcomings Of Vista

Vista's integrated search capability is also worth noting. Tightly integrated into the operating system, users can search for applications, documents, folders and so on. What's more, searches can be saved and turned into virtual folders, which will automatically update as new content is created.

Microsoft has put security first with Vista and has incorporated several technologies to protect the core OS from exploits. Those enhancements range from integrated antispyware to digital sandbox technology to a software firewall. Automatic updating along with the product's user control center further round out the security equation, making it Microsoft's most secure desktop OS to date. Vista's network control center shows visual cues to networking status, security and network options, while wizards speed connectivity to various networks or resources. That simplicity continues through to wireless networking capability, which allows users to quickly and securely join both public and private wireless networks with click-and-play simplicity.

These elements combined with an OS that brings enhanced stability to the desktop should shepherd a plethora of upgrades and opportunities for the channel through the coming year.

-- Frank J. Ohlhorst

SuperServer 5015M-MR

When it comes to servers, smaller is better, at least when it comes to physical size.

Supermicro Computer, San Jose, Calif., is pushing the small-size envelope with its SuperServer 5015M-MR, a diminutive rack-mount server that sports dual-core technology. For solution providers looking to reduce the server footprint at their clients' sites, the 5015M-MR offers an inexpensive alternative to blade servers. At just 1U high and 14 inches deep, VARs could install five units in the space a typical blade chassis occupies—at a much lower cost.

As small as the SuperServer 5015M-MR is, it supports the latest dual-core Pentium D processors. A dual-core processor can work on two tasks at once without having applications compete for processing power. For less-expensive configurations, the server also supports Pentium 4 Extreme, Pentium 4 and Celeron D processors.

The SuperServer 5015M-MR has an expansion slot that supports PCI and PCI-X cards, and it supports PCI-Express x8 cards using an optional riser board. It only has one 3.5-inch hard drive bay but will accept up to 8 Gbytes of memory. The server is optimized for and sized right for security appliances such as firewalls and VPNs. Supermicro sells this server as a barebones white-box unit for only $600, and fully configured units are available from distributors. A typical configuration would contain a 3.2GHz dual-core Pentium D processor, 4 Gbytes of memory and a 300-Gbyte SATA hard drive, all for less than $1,500.

Four DIMM sockets on the motherboard support up to 8 Gbytes of unbuffered dual-channel ECC DDRII 667/533MHz memory. The motherboard also houses dual-port Intel 82573V PCI-Express Gigabit Ethernet and a SATA II controller. An on-board ATI RageXL graphics controller has 8 Mbytes of its own memory. An on-board IDE controller supports up to two UDMA IDE devices, one typically a TEAC 24X slimline CD-ROM drive.

While the company's channel program favors VARs selling in volume, the unit's unique form factor makes it a worthwhile consideration for solution providers seeking an alternative for blades. The low price tag, small form factor and customization options earn the 5015M-MR the Product of the Year nod in the server category.

-- Marc Spiwak